Basketball team

Now things are getting very tricky – and busy – for UConn’s men’s basketball team: “It’s going to be exciting.”

February is perhaps the shortest month. For the UConn men’s basketball team, it couldn’t be longer. Or busier.

Or more fun.

“It will be exciting,” coach Dan Hurley promised.

Starting Tuesday, when they host Creighton in Hartford, the 20th-ranked Huskies will play nine games over a 26-day span that culminates Feb. 27 in Georgetown. And that’s assuming UConn’s canceled game at Providence isn’t rescheduled (and right now, it looks like it won’t).

“I’m looking forward to really getting into that rhythm of games and playing so many exciting games,” Hurley said, shortly after Saturday night’s 57-50 victory over DePaul. “We have put ourselves in a pretty good position now. Just really, really games that get you excited to come here.

Now, Hurley isn’t one to take it easy with his players in practice. But with such a busy list of matches on the horizon, he will calm down a bit.

“It’s definitely a reduction,” Hurley promised. “The fact that we got through the breaks and now we’re in more consistent games, with a full roster, and we know who we are. We will be doing a lot more maintenance work there.

But it’s not just the volume of games that will be a challenge for UConn. In those 26 days, two fights with No. 14 Villanova, two with No. 21 Xavier and one with No. 22 Marquette. There will be a game at St. John’s, which the Huskies had to beat in overtime at home on Jan. 12, and a rematch with Seton Hall, who edged the Huskies in overtime at New Jersey.

Starting with Creighton, a Quad 2 opponent, on Tuesday, UConn’s next eight games will be Quad 1 or 2 opportunities. Five of them will be Quad 1 opportunities.

In other words, the Huskies’ next eight league games will be much tougher than their first eight. The NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) ranking places teams into four quads, with Quad 1 being the highest.

UConn’s 6-2 start in the Big East is nice, but let’s be honest: The Huskies haven’t exactly faced league iron. UConn has faced just two of the top six teams in the league standings, winning at fourth-placed Marquette and losing at home to first-placed Providence.

The Huskies are 5-1 against No. 7-11 teams in the Big East, beating Butler twice and St. John’s, DePaul and Georgetown to go along with that loss at Seton Hall.

That didn’t hurt UConn’s NET ranking, which stood at an impressive No. 16 on Sunday morning. But now is the time for the Huskies to prove exactly who they are.

“I think we’re ready,” point guard RJ Cole said after his 25-point masterpiece to DePaul. “It’s very exciting to be able to play these big games in this league. This league is very competitive, so you’ll always have someone’s best night. I think our opportunities are there for us, and we have to go out there and take advantage of them.

In a way, UConn has already been through something similar earlier this season. Do you remember those first four games of the regular season? UConn beat a collection of low-majors by an average margin of 40.7 points. The competition was terrible, but the Huskies did what they had to do: win and win convincingly. Their AP Top 25 ranking (No. 22 on November 22) reflected this.

Then came the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, where UConn’s mettle was truly going to be tested. Overall, the Huskies rose to the challenge, beating current No. 1 Auburn in a double-overtime classic, dropping a close to current No. 10 Michigan State, then beating a good VCU team in overtime.

Now UConn finds itself in a similar situation. No, the Big East’s low-level teams are not small majors. But Georgetown and DePaul are no good. Butler isn’t very good either. St. John’s and Seton Hall? Meh.

Villanova, Xavier, Marquette and, to a lesser extent, Creighton? It’s a row of deadly opponents over the next month.

And UConn is ready.

“That’s why you come to UConn; that’s what you come to the Big East for,” sophomore forward Andre Jackson said. “Every night you’re up against guys who are either really good or really experienced playing their roles. You play against very good teams, top coaches. So this next month is going to be very special for this team. I feel like we have all the tools to go out there and win those games. I think the biggest thing is going to be the camaraderie and making sure we’re all together, so we can have a lot of chemistry on the pitch when we face teams like Villanova and the like.

OUR BIG EAST MIDSEASON AWARDS

Believe it or not, we’re halfway through the Big East season. Sort of.

Villanova and Marquette have already played 11 league games. A few others have played 10. UConn has only played eight and Georgetown seven, but neither will likely play all 20 conference tilts. So we call this the halfway point.

With that, let’s hand out some mid-season rewards:

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Justin Lewis, Marquette. Right now it’s a close race between Lewis, Villanova’s Collin Gillespie and UConn’s Adama Sanogo. Gillespie could have the upper hand, given that he was the coaches’ chosen pre-season player. But Lewis and Sanogo are having better seasons. Lewis is tied with Gillespie for the league lead in points (18.0) and sixth in rebounds (8.1). Sanogo leads the league in rebounds (10.9) and ranks sixth in points (15.3). What breaks the tie right now could be Lewis’ game-winning 3-pointer in a win at Villanova.

COACH OF THE YEAR: Ed Cooley, Providence. There’s no truth to the rumor that Sunday’s PC-Marquette fight at Dunkin’ Donuts Center was also for the lead in the league’s Coach of the Year race.

Cooley has the Brothers atop the league standings after being picked to finish seventh. Shaka Smart has Marquette in fourth place after being picked to finish ninth.

Dan Hurley? If the Huskies get through the February gauntlet and win the Big East regular season title, he could be the frontrunner.

FIRST YEAR OF THE YEAR: Ryan Nembhard, Creighton. Georgetown’s Aminu Mohammed was the preseason pick, and he didn’t disappoint (12.6 points per game, 6.9 rebounds per game as a 6-foot-5 guard). But Creighton’s Ryan Nembhard was arguably just as good (10.8 points per game, 3.3 assists) and more important (33.9 minutes per game) for the much better team.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Justin Minaya, Providence. This is a difficult question. Last year’s co-winners St. John’s Posh Alexander and UConn’s Isaiah Whaley both returned and did nothing to give up their crowns. Alexander leads the Big East in steals (2.3 per game) and Whaley is fifth in blocks (1.9). Seton Hall’s Ike Obiagu is a monster in the paint, with a league-leading 4.6 blocks per game.

But we’ll go with Minaya, an all-around defensive prodigy who ranks atop the league in many defensive analytic stats — including opponents’ points per game against.

FIRST TEAM ALL-BIG EAST

Justin Lewis, Marquette

Adama Sanogo, UConn

Collin Gillespie, Villanova

Julian Champagnie, St. John’s

Al Durham, Providence

RJ Cole, UConn

SECOND TEAM ALL-BIG EAST

Justin MooreVillanova

Jared Rhoden, Seton Hall

Paul Scruggs, Xavier

Jack Nunge, Xavier

Alex O’Connell, Creighton

HONORABLE MENTION

Tyrese Martin, UConn

Darryl Morsell, Marquette

Posh Alexander, St. John’s

THIS WEEK’S AP TOP 25 BULLETIN

1. Gonzaga: You miss good games, John Stockton.

2. Auburn: Bruce can buy a lot of pearls with this new extension.

3.Purdu: Took buzzer-beater Jaden Ivy to avoid collapse against Ohio State.

4.UCLA: A good week of three wins for the Bruins.

5.Arizona: I can’t penalize too much for a loss at Pauley Pavilion.

6. Duke: Interesting match with the hot Notre Dame on Monday night.

7. Kentucky: John Calipari is an underrated coach. You read correctly.

8. Baylor: I don’t know what a loss to Alabama means this season.

9. Kansas: Hampered at home by Kentucky on Saturday.

10.Wisconsin: The Badgers are past their home loss to Providence.

11. Houston: Can anyone challenge Coogs for the AAC crown? EMS? Memphis?

12. State of Michigan: Tom Izzo is an overrated coach. You read correctly.

13. Providence: Jamie Luckie should referee every game. Oliver Luck should be the new AD. (I’m joking of course)

14. Villanova: Waiting for UConn on Saturday in Philadelphia.

15. Texas Technology: Better than when Bob Knight coached here.

16.USC: Lost to Jaiden Dellaire of North Granby, Stanford last week.

17. UConn: February is going to be fun.

18. Illinois: When Kofe Cockburn and Andre Curbelo are both healthy, watch out.

19. Xavier: Amazing return to Creighton on Saturday.

20. State of Ohio: An almost unbelievable return to Purdue on Sunday.

21. Murray State: 20-2, 10 game winning streak works for me.

22. St. Mary: Gonzaga may not be the WCC’s only NCAA general team.

23. Boise State: A nice 14-game winning streak suits me too.

24. Miami: “Rods are in first place in a declining ACC.

25. Marquette: Impossible to penalize after a victory in the Hall, a two-point loss in the PC.

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