BUFFALO, N.Y. — Some of the Huskies know the thrill of winning a national championship, and most know the emptiness of being barred from postseason play.
But perhaps the most important experience of all came in between, when UConn lost to Iowa State in its first game of the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
"It's not going to happen again, we refuse to let it happen again," Ryan Boatright said. "Losing in the first round, then not being able to play last year, it sticks with you. We're going into this game hungry, we're going into this tournament hungry as a collective group."
Said coach Kevin Ollie: "They're not taking anything for granted because they know a special moment can be taken away from them."
Two years ago, UConn had two soon-to-be NBA lottery picks in Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb, and had everyone but Kemba Walker back from the championship team. But coach Jim Calhoun missed nine games, three to a suspension and six to a back ailment, and the Huskies season became disjointed. They were a No. 9 seed, and Iowa State, the No. 8 seed, won 77-64 in the second-round game at Louisville in what proved to be Calhoun's final game.
"The biggest thing is play each team with a lot of respect," senior Shabazz Napier said. "That's one thing where we fell short against Iowa State. We didn't play them with a lot of respect, we kind of thought we were better. We were looking too far ahead. Sometimes that occurs, but we've got better leaders now. Sophomore year I wasn't the leader I should have been."
The Huskies, therefore, have healthy respect for St. Joseph's, their opponent Thursday at 6:55 p.m. at the First Niagara Center. St. Joe's (24-9) comes in off a stirring run to the Atlantic 10 tournament championship.
UConn (26-8) is seeded seventh in the East Regional; the Hawks are seeded 10th.
"We definitely want to go out there and shock some people," said Langston Galloway, the Hawks' leading scorer. "We want to go out there and pull the upset off."
St. Joseph's, in the tournament for the first time since 2008, features a group of seniors led by Galloway and Halil Kanacevic, who is 6 feet 8 and 255 pounds and leads the team in rebounding and assists, an unusual combination.
"He's a unique player, he kind of reminds me of Markus Kennedy with SMU, where they run their offense through him," said Ollie. "He can play on the outside and he can play on the inside, too. Galloway is an exceptional shooter; he's not just a stand-still shooter, he can go off the bounce. [DeAndre'] Bembry is a great freshman that's kind of an energizer. … They've got a great motion offense that coach Phil Martelli has been using for years, getting the ball from side to side."
UConn finished 12-6 in the American Athletic Conference, which sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament. St. Joe's was 11-5 in the A-10, which turned out to be a six-bid league.
"They're here for a reason," Napier said. "There are no slouches in the NCAA Tournament. We've got to show up and show them a lot of respect because they deserve it."
The Huskies finished the regular season with a 33-point loss at Louisville, but rebounded with wins over Memphis and Cincinnati in the AAC tournament, then lost by 10 to Louisville in the final. Their season has had ups and downs, especially in rebounding. But they have played well in close, down-to-the-wire games and defensive struggles that characterize postseason play. They are holding opponents to 38.7 percent shooting and they have 211 blocks, 100 more than their opponents.
"I'm in awe of the way [Ollie's] team defends," Martelli said. "Everybody wants to play fast, ask any kid. You want to play fast, average 80 and we'll get everybody excited. You know what gets everybody excited? Winning, and that's what he has done, including a big win over [top-ranked] Florida that maybe we haven't talked enough about."
The winner of this game gets either No. 2-seed Villanova or No. 15 Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Saturday. The Hawks have momentum; the Huskies have sufficient reason to play angry — the No. 7 seed, and the loss to Iowa State two seasons ago.
"We need to leave it all out there on the floor," senior Niels Giffey said. "Last time, I don't think people left everything on the floor."Copyright © 2015, CT Now