UConn looks to MSG crowd as its sixth man
Published 7:33 pm, Thursday, March 27, 2014
NEW YORK -- The opportunity to play in the Big East tournament under the bright lights in the big city is something the UConn Huskies missed out on this season after changing conferences.
Since they could not earn an automatic trip there, the seventh-seeded Huskies (28-8) played their way into Madison Square Garden for the NCAA tournament, where No. 3 Iowa State (28-7) will be waiting for them in the East Regional semifinals Friday night. (7:27, TBS)
A pro-Husky house is expected to greet UConn in NCAA tourney basketball's first return to The Garden in 53 years. Ticket prices climbed into the $600 range for upper-level seats during the week with the Huskies coming to town. In comparison, upper-level seats for the Memphis Regional, which contains the No. 1 team in the country in Florida, could be found for as little as $28 as of Thursday morning.
"It's going to be a sixth man, definitely," UConn guard Ryan Boatright said. "Nobody can tell you that a great crowd that's pushing you and behind you, they don't push you to get that loose ball, that 50-50 ball, to get that one more stop on defense.
"It's always good to have the home crowd with you."
The key for the Huskies is using it to their advantage and not getting caught up in the Garden hype.
Iowa State has been one of the more potent offenses (83.2 points per game) all season and still has three starters scoring in double figures despite the loss of sophomore Georges Niang to a broken foot.
"I know there's going to be a lot of people here cheering for us, but at the end of the day, it's a basketball game," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "I told our guys this is expensive. We paid a lot to get here, but as we go further and further, the stakes rise. And it's not all physical, it's mental.
"We got to have the mental aspect to go out there and play our brand of basketball. Don't get caught up in the crowd. Don't get caught up in what Iowa State is doing. Stay in your lane and play your type of basketball."
The aura of playing at MSG and also being in New York is something ISU coach Fred Hoiberg was concerned about coming into the game. Only two players on the roster have East Coast roots, with Niang (Massachusetts) and starting forward Dustin Hogue, who's from Yonkers.
"The good thing is getting them an opportunity to come in (early and experience MSG along with the city)," Hoiberg said. "And that's been maybe the most impressive thing about our team as anything to me is how they have handled situations like this."
After losing Niang in the NCAA second round to North Carolina Central, the Cyclones were down, but rallied the next game to beat North Carolina 85-83 to reach the Sweet 16.
"They get up and down the floor, they average a lot of points and DeAndre Kane is a big point guard (6-foot-4)," Boatright said. "But I think we can match up pretty well if we can play help defense."
The Huskies have their own talented point guard in senior Shabazz Napier (49 points, 13 rebounds in the two tournament games), but they don't expect the game to evolve into a solo battle between stars.
Kane landed in Ames, Iowa, this season under the same NCAA graduate rule that allowed Lasan Kromah to leave George Washington for UConn. Kane graduated from Marshall last summer and then jumped to the Cyclones for his final year of eligibility.
"Well, for me, I'm not looking at it as a 1-on-1 matchup," the 24-year-old Kane said. "He does a lot of things for his team. ¦ But we're going to do whatever we can to slow him down."
Napier has stayed out of 1-on-1 battle hype all season, opting for a team-first approach even when he's had to carry the Huskies in games.
"We just got to do our best to contain him," he said of Kane.
Whichever team can do a better job of slowing the opposition's point guard down figures to advance to Sunday's Elite Eight and a meeting with the winner of No. 1 Virginia-No. 4 Michigan State.