UConn is nearing desperation time.
With four regular-season games remaining, including tonight's Big East game against Villanova at 7 p.m. at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, the Huskies are losing ground in the fight to secure an NCAA tournament berth.
The last thing that UConn wants to do is to go into the Big East tournament with its post-season status still in doubt.
"I definitely think we're running out of time," junior Alex Oriakhi said. "I don't want to say we're getting desperate, but it is what it is, man. We've definitely got to fight now. We're in a hole and have to dig ourselves out."
Something has to change for the Huskies (16-10, 6-8) to reach their desired destination. Costly lapses continue to contribute to their downfall as does a lack of leadership and cohesion. They haven't won two straight in over a month.
"It's frustrating," sophomore Jeremy Lamb said. "It's really frustrating."
Associate head coach George Blaney keeps driving home the same message: maintain intensity and focus throughout entire possessions.
"We preached that all last year, too, and we finally got it," Blaney said. "At some point, we'll get it. We've done it for periods of times. … But, right now, we're still not doing it for entire games and that's what we need to do."
It's not a good sign that the Huskies still haven't embraced that message at this late stage of the season.
Sure, last year's national championship team stumbled in February before staging a remarkable turnaround.
But this is a different team.
Just ask sophomore Shabazz Napier who had some strong words for his teammates after a 79-64 loss to No. 12 Marquette Saturday. He questioned their heart and toughness.
"We had ups and downs last year," Napier said. "These ups and downs are totally different this year."
On the plus side, the remaining schedule is fairly favorable. Three of UConn's last four opponents own losing records in conference play including Villanova (11-15, 4-10). The Huskies also host No. 2 Syracuse Saturday, visit last place Providence Feb. 28 and host struggling Pittsburgh March 3.
Villanova is in much tougher shape than UConn.
The Wildcats are limping to the finish line, dropping five of their last six games. They've played the last two games without two starters. Leading scorer Maalik Wayns (sprained left MCL) is doubtful for tonight's game and James Bell (sprained ankle) will not play.
On Saturday, Villanova blew a 20-point lead in the first half, losing to No. 23 Notre Dame in overtime, 74-70. Only seven players saw action, including four that played 40 minutes or more.
Despite their troubles, the Wildcats are still a threat.
"When Wayns plays, then they have a legit guy that can really put points on the board," Blaney said. "They're fairly young, that's why they haven't won as much as they normally do. It's a dangerous game and you're going to Philadelphia. You'd like to be playing them coming off a win."
Blaney is more concerned about solving UConn's problems, some of which he blames on the team's youth.
The Huskies suffered breakdowns at both ends of the court against Marquette.
On defense, they left 3-point shooters open on the perimeter and allowed too many fast break points. On offense, they gave in at times in the face of defensive pressure and settled for jump shots instead of attacking the rim.
As the losses and mistakes pile up, the Huskies are trying to remain optimistic about their NCAA tournament chances.
"This is where great teams come out and show how much they're willing to give it their all…," Napier said. "We've really got to dig down deep."
UConn at Villanova
Location: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia
Tip-off: 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Records: UConn 16-10, 6-8; Villanova 11-15, 4-10
Last game: UConn lost to No. 12 Marquette, 79-64, Saturday; Villanova lost to Notre Dame, 74-70 (OT) Saturday.
Probable starters: UConn, 6-1 so. guard Shabazz Napier (13.0 pts, 5.8 assists), 6-0 fr. guard Ryan Boatright (10.4 pts), 6-5 so. guard Jeremy Lamb (17.3 pts, 4.7 rebs), 6-9 jr. forward Alex Oriakhi (6.8 pts, 5.0 rebs), 6-11 fr. center Andre Drummond (10.0 pts, 7.4 rebs, 2.5 blks)
Villanova, 6-3 fr. guard Ty Johnson (2.9 pts), 6-6 jr. guard Dominic Cheek (12.6 pts), 6-7 fr. forward JayVaughn Pinkston (10.2 pts, 5.3 rebs), 6-10 jr. forward Mouphtaou Yarou (10.8 pts, 8.3 rebs), 6-11 jr. center Maurice Sutton (2.8 pts, 2.6 rebs)
Noteworthy: Two struggling teams meet - UConn lost seven of nine and Villanova five of six. … Huskies are 2-6 on the road, losing their last four. … Series: UConn trails, 32-29, winning three straight including 61-59 last season in Storrs. … Injury update: UConn coach Jim Calhoun (out) bad back, Villanova leading scorer Maalik Wayns (sprained MCL left knee) doubtful, starter James Bell (sprained ankle) out. … Villanova 15th in scoring defense (71.9) and last in field goal percentage (41.1) in Big East overall. ... Hot: Napier has 26 assists and four turnovers last three games. Cold: Huskies shooting 38 percent on the road ... Magic number: UConn 11-0 when scoring at least 70 points. … Through 14 Big East games last year, Huskies were 8-6. … Up next: UConn hosts No. 2 Syracuse Saturday in Storrs.
- Gavin Keefe