Now, the real grind starts for the UConn men's basketball team.
"In this league, the Big East, you can lose five or six in a row in a hurry if you're not ready for it," Ryan Boatright said as the Huskies checked into their downtown hotel on Monday afternoon. "Every team is tough, you're going to get beat up, you're going to get banged, not a lot of fouls called. You've got to be physically fit — and you've got to be mentally fit."
Last season spiraled out of control in January and early February, with the Huskies losing 8 of 11 games once Big East games began coming hard on the heels of one another. The new season of Big East play begins on Tuesday night when the Huskies play their first true road game of the season, against Marquette at the Bradley Center.
"And it is a hostile environment," coach Kevin Ollie said. "It's one of the three or five toughest places to play. … It's not only going to be a physical grind, it's going to be a mental grind for us."
So far, UConn (10-2) has been an unqualified success in Ollie's first season, and he got a five-year extension for his efforts, as reflected by the Huskies. Playing with a depleted roster, picked ninth in the league and ineligible for the postseason, UConn has played hard, played like a perpetual underdog with nothing to lose. That mentality would come in handy against Marquette, especially for veterans who remember the 15-point spanking the Golden Eagles administered at the XL Center last February.
"We've got to match the physicality of this team," Boatright said.
Marquette (8-4), one of the seven non-football schools leaving the league, lost Big East Player of the Year Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom after last season, but it has assembled a deep, talented roster for this season's grind. Junior guard Vander Blue (13.4 points a game) and Devante Gardner (12.5) are their top scorers, but their strength is their depth. Through 12 games, Marquette has 11 players averaging at least 9 1/2 minutes, and nearly all are playing significant, quality minutes.
Gardner, for instance, doesn't even start. Jamil Wilson's shooting better than 50 percent on three-pointers (12 of 23), and he has started only five games. Todd Mayo, academically eligible this semester, came off the bench and scored 14 in the last game against North Carolina Central.
The Huskies have basically used a nine-man rotation. Phil Nolan, the freshman from Milwaukee, has been at the tail end of that rotation, but Ollie would like to get him more involved in his "committee" of big men, including Tyler Olander and Enosch Wolf. Marquette starts a 6-11 red-shirt senior in Chris Otule, but he is averaging only 4.8 points and 3.2 rebounds a game.
"The guy who goes in there and plays well and does the things we're emphasizing is going to play," Ollie said, "and they know that. … Phil is asking a lot of questions about the nuances of the game, after practice he's grabbing me, grabbing coach [Glen] Miller and he's asking for feedback. I like that in a young player. He's not going into a shell because he's not playing, he's asking, 'How can I get better, how can I get on the court, coach?'"
Nolan, 6-9, played six minutes in the game against Washington. He will have about 15 friends and family here for the game. Nolan has watched games at the Bradley Center, but never played in one.
"This was one of the draws when I committed to UConn," he said. "I'm getting used to the college level. Everybody's fast, everybody's strong."
Boatright, who grew up near Chicago, said he lost track of how many from his clan were making the drive. "When we travel, we travel in packs," he said.
Marquette coach Buzz Williams will have to sit this game out, the school-imposed sanctions for NCAA infractions, and it is not specified who will actually be running the game for Marquette. But in preparation, the Eagles are, like all UConn opponents, most concerned with the guards — Boatright; Shabazz Napier, who had 13 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three steals against Washington; and Omar Calhoun, who has scored 53 points in the past three games.
"They're extremely fast," Williams told reporters in Milwaukee over the weekend, "like, really, really, really fast. They pressure you defensively, put pressure on you offensively because of their speed. We'll have our hands full, but we can't make it a track meet, because we'll lose. We have to make them guard us inside, have a presence in the paint."