With the amount of parity in the Big East Conference this season, there's a reason every game feels like a big one. The madness continues tonight as struggling Connecticut heads to Freedom Hall to take on surging Louisville.
Since drilling cupcake after cupcake and starting the season 11-0, Uconn has lost five of seven and enters tonight's game with a conference record of 2-3. The Huskies know that in order to salvage the season a move needs to be made quickly.
"Everything is going to be all right," point guard Doug Wiggins said. "Our best is right around the corner. We're practicing hard and it's showing in the games. We're getting better. We're just not coming out with the wins. That's going to come, though. We look at Louisville as our game to turn the corner."
In order to turn the corner the Huskies are going to have to beat a Cardinal team that has won three of four and eight of ten, and is coming off of a solid road win over DePaul. Louisville has stepped up its play by turning to a four guard starting lineup that has rejuvenated a team that appeared dead in the water just a month ago.
Much of U of L's recent success has been attributed to the fact that several players who had been nursing injuries are finally starting to get healthy, a streak of luck that ran out on Saturday when senior guard Brandon Jenkins injured his thumb. Jenkins was held out of practice yesterday and will have his thumb heavily taped if he does play tonight.
Jenkins' injury means that Juan Palacios, who has been hampered with neck and back injuries for two weeks, will likely get the start. Palacios scored a season-high 21 points against DePaul.
"I just think that he's been so unlucky with his health that I don't think he's ever been able to define a role," said Cardinal head coach Rick Pitino. "I really don't know what to say about Tello, because he's probably missed up to 50 percent of our practices since he's been here."
On paper Uconn, led by 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet, has a dominant edge inside. The Huskies lead NCAA Division I in blocks at 8.9 per game, are second in rebounding margin at plus-10.4, and they outrebounded Indiana in their last game 38-22. None of this bodes well for a Louisville team with a conference ranking of tenth in rebounding and a propensity for allowing opposing big men to have monster games.
On the other hand, in two games last season against an even more intimidating Connecticut frontcourt, the Cardinals' big men both netted career highs. In Louisville's home game against the Huskies David Padgett scored a career best 27 points, while Palacios scored a career high 29 a month later in Storrs.
If someone in the Cardinal frontcourt does indeed have a big game, it won't be troubled freshman Derrick Caracter, who won't suit up for the third time in four games. Pitino said Caracter broke the terms of a contract he agreed to after he returned from his leave of absence last month. The contract, concocted by assistant coach Steve Masiello, includes requirements like being on time, working hard, controlling weight and having a positive attitude.
"I am not keeping him out at all," Pitino said. "He is breaking the contract himself."
This Connecticut team is almost a mirror image of the Louisville team that went 6-10 in the conference last season. A team coming off of a successful season (Successful in that they went to the elite 8, not necessarily because they lived up to their potential) with just enough returning talent that they're given a decent preseason ranking which continues to climb as they pound cupcake after cupcake while the teams in front of them beat each other up. Then conference play and a finally a tough non-con game (IU) come and it's a rude awakening.
The debate in Storrs over the team's non-conference scheduling is also eerily similar to the one that took place here a year ago, and to a lesser degree this year. Even Calhoun's answer to critics of the schedule sounds like it could have been written by Pitino himself.
"Thank God we had the 11 games," Calhoun said. "I know I don't know much about it ... 35 years."
With so much on the line tonight for both teams, the fact that U of L has designated tonight a "white out" game may play a larger role than once thought. Louiville instituted a "black out" for its Nov. 2 football game against West Virginia, and the result was a 10-point Cardinal win.
The stakes continue to rise in what is arguably the most difficult league in the country to figure out.
This should be fun.
CC Prediction: Louisville 67, Connecticut 62