In a season in which the Big East may get an unprecedented amount of bids to the NCAA tournament, it seems only fitting two of its heavyweights would mark the start of conference play.
Second-ranked Connecticut hosts No. 11 Georgetown at the XL Center in Hartford on Monday, with both teams eager to gain an early foothold in what is expected to be the toughest conference in the country.
The Big East had eight teams in the NCAA tournament last season - tying a record for most from any conference - and also had eight teams ranked in the AP Top 25 at times early this season. With the exception of Georgetown’s loss to then-No. 12 Tennessee in the semifinals of the Old Spice Classic on Nov. 28, both teams have justified their lofty rankings thus far, going a combined 20-1.
The Huskies (11-0), who are 3-0 against ranked teams and posted an 88-83 overtime victory over then-No. 8 Gonzaga in Seattle on Dec. 20, showed no signs of a letdown Friday in a 75-55 rout of Fairfield. Jeff Adrien had 21 points and 14 rebounds, while Hasheem Thabeet added 20, 11 and six blocked shots for UConn, which outscored the Stags 48-22 in the paint.
But coach Jim Calhoun expressed concern that his team hasn’t put together a complete game in either victory, something he knows is essential for success in the Big East.
“We’ve had 11 chances to get it done, and we’ve done it, but we have 19 Big East games - and I’m including Michigan as a Big East game because they’re as good as anyone in our league - we have 19 wars starting on Monday, and we better be prepared to put everybody together,” he said.
Calhoun, who has 785 victories, can move into a tie with Lefty Driesell for seventh on the all-time Division I wins list with a victory.
Junior guard Jerome Dyson, the team’s leading scorer at 15.5 points per game, was held to 10 on 4-of-14 shooting. His backcourt partner A.J. Price, who hit six 3-pointers and had 24 points in the win over Gonzaga, finished with six on 2-of-7 shooting, including 0-for-3 from beyond the arc.
Georgetown (9-1) didn’t look ahead to this game either, smothering Florida International 76-38 on Tuesday. Austin Freeman scored 17 points as the Hoyas opened a 43-16 halftime lead and hit a season-high 12 3-pointers.
“I’ve been working on it, and so it showed up today,” said Freeman, who made 5 of 6 from 3-point range. “I wanted my shot to fall if I couldn’t get to the basket.”
Highly touted freshman center Greg Monroe finished with 10 points, six rebounds and five blocks ahead of his eagerly anticipated matchup with the 7-foot-3 Thabeet. The 6-11 Monroe is averaging 12.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks while shooting 57.6 percent.
One wrinkle Hoyas coach John Thompson III may continue for this game - Georgetown’s first true road game - is to start sophomore Omar Wattad over senior Jessie Sapp. Both players struggled offensively Tuesday, combining for seven points on 2-for-12 shooting - 2-for-10 from beyond the arc - but Thompson appears to be leaning towards Wattad because of his recent improvement.
“We put Omar in charge of the second team and every day, particularly this week, the huge disparity that had been there is getting smaller, which is better,” Thompson said. “He has managed that team, so it was more about Omar than it was Jessie.”
Georgetown, which leads the all-time series 31-27, has won the last two games between the teams after losing the previous 11. Freeman had 13 points in last season’s 72-69 win over Connecticut, while Adrien had 18 points and Price added 17 and nine assists.