MEMPHIS – The Huskies first task is a big one. Then, should they succeed, comes a bigger one. And then, well, you get the idea.
"To get to where you want to go you've got to face giants, and this is one of those giants you've got to face," Shabazz Napier said. "Memphis is going to have a crazy crowd like they always do. We've got to understand, this is one of the biggest giants we're going to have to face this year and we have to be ready to fight it."
There is your always-limited peek into the Huskies' mind-set for the American Athletic Conference basketball tournament. They come in with an impressive 24-7 record, 12-6 in the league, but they come in hobbling, out of offensive sync the past several games of the regular season.
And they come bearing slingshots.
"When you fight a giant and you win," said Napier, the AAC player of the year, "you feel so much better, you feel uplifted. We all want that feeling and we've got to work hard for it."
For the No. 4-seeded Huskies to come back to campus Sunday with a championship, they will have to beat No. 5 Memphis, the host school, for a third time, a second time in its home arena. Then the top two seeds, Cincinnati and Louisville, would be next up. And if someone else were to sneak into the Huskies' path, it would most likely be Southern Methodist, which has beaten UConn twice. All five of the top teams are ranked and going to the NCAA Tournament.
So UConn, ineligible for postseason play a year ago, is coming in with the underdog mentality, bristling at the perception that their March adventure is destined to be short-lived.
"I just like the resilience of this team the whole year," coach Kevin Ollie said, "the focus of our seniors. Everybody's trying to develop and get that champions' mind-set."
UConn began its AAC history with stinging defeats at Houston and SMU, then played much better throughout January. The Huskies were never more giddy than after coming into the FedEx Forum, which was filled to 18,000 capacity, and outrunning and outshooting the Tigers by 10 points on Jan. 16.
A month later at the XL, the rematch was completely different. UConn was outrebounded and allowed a ton of easy, fastbreak baskets. But the Huskies got to the free-throw line, forced the game into OT and won, 86-81.
"The games were actually the same," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. "UConn beat us both times. … We've got to be on point, offensively and defensively. That's extra critical against a team like UConn. We've got to do a great job defensively."
On a conference call Pastner called Napier, Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels "studs," and Ollie "a future Hall of Famer, no question about it." So the Tigers (23-8, 12-6) know how to play the giant-slaying game, too.
The teams are very evenly matched and similar in style. Memphis, with guards Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Michael Dixon Jr., et al., are "super fast," Napier said. The Tigers are the least likely of UConn's opponents to try to shackle the Huskies in a half-court game; they average 78.4 points, second to Louisville, and shoot 48.5 percent from the floor, second to SMU. They have won nine in a row at home since losing to UConn, including wins over Louisville and SMU.
"We have no supreme confidence," Ollie said. "Memphis is a great team, they beat Louisville and SMU there, and we're 0-4 against them. Memphis is a much better team than they were at the XL Center."
UConn's 83-73 win at Memphis was one of several breakout games for Daniels, who had 23 points and 11 rebounds. Daniels, the 6-foot-9 forward, is always the Huskies' best hope for inside-perimeter balance, and with 17 points and eight rebounds at Louisville, it can be hoped he is on the upswing again. Freshman Amida Brimah, who made the AAC all-rookie team, is one of the league's best shot blockers, but other elements of his game have been inconsistent. UConn will also need him to draw Memphis' attention off its perimeter game.
In the Louisville game, Boatright and Napier combined to go 4-for-24, including 1-for-14 on three-point attempts, and had nine of the Huskies' season-high 22 turnovers. They combined for 55 points and only three turnovers, of UConn's six, in the OT win over Memphis on Feb. 15.
"It's always tough beating a team three times in a row," Napier said. "That doesn't make it easy for us. They're a whole different team than when we played them. They've tangled with bullies, Louisville and SMU, that we could not beat. If we're going to get to where we want to go, we've got to make sure we play them with so much respect. We've got to come out ready to fight."