STORRS — The Rutgers Athletic Center, known as "The RAC," has a reputation for being one of the tougher places to play.
It's a lot tougher, of course, when Rutgers has a good team. UConn has won 9 of 11 games it has played there since 1996 but had its share of noisy nightmares, particularly two years ago when the Huskies were upset.
"It was pretty tough," DeAndre Daniels said. "My freshman year, we took a loss in there, the crowd was pretty loud in there. We've got to come out and play our game."
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The RAC will be sold out Saturday (7 p.m.) for UConn's last appearance there as a league rival. Rutgers is asking for a blackout, hoping most of its 8,000 fans to wear black. For a program that has had little to cheer about in recent years, this could be a big moment – and a culture shock to even its own players.
"According to ticket sales, [the rivalry with UConn] seems to be very exciting, very popular," Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan told reporters in New Jersey this week. "I just want our guys to learn how to play, even with a good home crowd, an excited, buzzed-up crowd – not be undisciplined, don't get outside yourself, don't do things you don't do in practice."
Ready or not, Rutgers is moving to the Big Ten next season. In the meantime, the Scarlet Knights (8-11) find themselves in the American Athletic Conference and, like in many years in the Big East, near the bottom at 2-4. UConn (15-4) is 3-3 in the league and needs to put games like this, regardless of the crowd, in the win column to have a chance to catch AAC front-runners Louisville and Cincinnati.
The Huskies come off a 90-66 win over Temple on Tuesday, a game won without Ryan Boatright, who was attending a family funeral. Daniels stepped up with career highs in scoring (31) and rebounding (12). Shabazz Napier scored 27.
"Now we're going to have Ryan back," Daniels said, "so I feel like, if we can keep doing what we did last game, keep moving the ball, we'll be even better."
The Scarlet Knights, who lost at the XL Center last January just as the Mike Rice mess began to unfold, turned to one of their own to bring stability. Jordan, 58, was on Rutgers' Final Four team in 1976 and had a long playing and coaching career in the NBA. He coached UConn coach Kevin Ollie with the Nets in 2000-01 and later sought to acquire him for the Wizards in 2003. "But Gilbert Arenas popped up and we gave all the money to him," Jordan said.
"[Jordan] is just a tough, tough person," Ollie said. "He's been through a lot of things. He's not looking at it as a situation he's going to fail in, he's looking at it as an opportunity he's going to succeed in. It's his alma mater and he has gone in there with a mind-set that he's going to turn things around."
The Knights have some veterans, some familiar names, such as Myles Mack, a 5-foot-11 guard who averages 16.5 points. They start a big team that includes Kadeem Jack and Wally Judge, both 6-9, so UConn's rebounding, which has improved the past five games, needs to be there.
"We've got to commit to hit," Ollie said, repeating his latest mantra.
Jordan likes to use a Princeton-style offense with a lot of back-door cuts, something UConn saw Harvard employ three weeks ago.
"[Jordan] has a great basketball mind; his offense has always worked at the college level as well as the NBA level," Ollie said. "We can't be chasing them all over the court. Hopefully we can cover their back doors and cover their shooters."
As UConn players boarded the bus for New Jersey on Friday, it was another reminder that games like this are disappearing from their schedule, games that don't require a plane ride, where fans circle the date UConn is coming.
"It's a tough environment," Ollie said, "but if we play our [brand of] basketball, I like our chances."