STORRS — Whatever UConn and Cincinnati do at the XL Center Saturday, it's unlikely that either team will surprise the other.
And however the game turns out, it's unlikely that it will be the result of pressure or jitters.
These are two of the most experienced teams in college basketball, well-acquainted with pressure and each other, and they'll be jockeying for postseason position in this rematch.
"We've got some veteran guys, and that experience plays a part," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said Friday, his voice still hoarse from the emotional win Wednesday at South Florida. "But at the end of the day, this game is going to come down to rebounding and who wants it most."
UConn (22-6, 10-5 in the American Athletic Conference) needs this one a little more. The unranked Huskies lost at Cincinnati on Feb. 6, a defeat that left them especially frustrated, and they have yet to beat one of the three teams ahead of them in the conference. The Bearcats (24-4, 13-2), No. 11 in the AP Poll, are in first place but have been sitting on a loss to Louisville for a week.
"It's late in the year," coach Mick Cronin said in Cincinnati this week. "All these kids maybe have an eye on the NCAA Tournament, and you have to try to keep your team focused."
Cincinnati and UConn split two games last season as Big East rivals, and played once this year, the Bearcats winning, 63-58. The Huskies were without DeAndre Daniels and will be at full strength this time.
"That will open up the game for us," UConn freshman Amida Brimah said. "We're going to have to play with more heart, that's what it is — more heart and hustle for the ball."
In the first meeting between national player of the year rivals, Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick (26 points, 12 rebounds) got the better of Shabazz Napier (5-for-19 for 16 points).
"When Shabazz Napier plays great, they're great," Cronin said. "Very similar to [Kilpatrick] with us. He can beat you by himself. He's logged a lot of miles. You've just got to hope that Saturday is not one of those days where he gets 35 on you like he did against Memphis. We did a great job on him, but knowing how great a player he is, he's going to be looking for redemption. We can't let him get started, we've got to make everything hard on him."
Kilpatrick, a fifth-year senior, Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles give the Bearcats three seniors who have been through much in their careers. A physical team built for the old Big East, Cincinnati outrebounded UConn 32-29 and outscored the Huskies in the paint, 34-20.
Lasan Kromah, a graduate student transfer who has added to the Huskies' experience, will probably be assigned to Kilpatrick, who averages 20.5 points and, like Napier, was among 10 semifinalists named Friday for the Naismith Award (player of the year).
"We're going to have to be tougher rebounding, and execute better down the stretch," Kromah said. "We know this game is going to come down to the wire, so mental toughness is going to be the key."
The Huskies showed some of that at South Florida, where they came from nine points down with a big second-half surge. That could provide an emotional lift going into this game, but Ollie just saw it as another sign of a maturing team.
"The maturity of the team is something I witnessed in that game, and that's why I felt so good," Ollie said. "A lot of guys contributed. It was an ugly first half, coming off the SMU [loss on Feb. 23], which was ugly, but those guys kept fighting. We took a step. I'm not saying it's going to contribute to our winning every game, but we took a step as a team. And that's what I was proud of."
"This would be a big-time win for us, just like USF was a big-time win for us. I can't measure [the importance], and I don't want my team to measure it. It's just another opportunity to show we're a better team."Copyright © 2015, CT Now