No. 15 Huskies face first true road test at West Virginia

·4 min read

Dec. 8—Any trip to West Virginia Coliseum in Morgantown comes with a couple warnings.

Expect to play before a hostile crowd.

Beware of the Mountaineer mascot firing off the musket.

Both can be a bit unnerving if not prepared.

Oh, and be ready to face West Virginia's disruptive defense.

For the first time since before the pandemic shutdown in mid-March 2020, UConn will play a true road game in front of a big crowd on Wednesday, visiting West Virginia in a Big East-Big 12 Battle game (7 p.m., ESPN2).

"In terms of actually there being a really big crowd, I can't remember the last time we played in a hostile environment," coach Dan Hurley said. "I'll prepare the guys. I'll let them know that they shoot the musket at halftime. People will be screaming at them and it's going to be intense.

"There's nothing better than what we're about to experience."

It is UConn's first trip to Morgantown since 2011 when West Virginia belonged to the Big East.

As a ranked team, No. 15 UConn (8-1) can expect to get West Virginia's best shot.

The Huskies will be the best team that West Virginia (7-1) has faced so far, according to Mountaineer coach Bob Huggins.

Huggins raved about UConn during his press conference on Tuesday.

"They remind me of some of the teams of the past," Huggins told reporters. "They do a great job in transition, really rebound it, superior athletes. ... Danny's got a really good team. They're deep and so athletic. They can score in multiple ways and they've got a lot of guys that can score. They really defend.

"I wish we were a little better at this time. Hopefully, we get better. But I wish we were a little better at this time. It would be a better game."

The Mountaineers, who were picked to finish fifth in the Big 12, have yet to play up to Huggins' high standards. Their best win came against Pittsburgh (72-59) on Nov. 12 and their only loss was to Marquette (82-71) on Nov. 19.

A stingy defense remains West Virginia's strength. The Mountaineers are allowing just 63 points per game while forcing 19.8 turnovers per game.

But West Virginia has been outrebounded (34.5 to 32.9) and has only one reliable scorer in Taz Sherman who averages 21 points. Senior guard Sean McNeil (12.0 ppg.) may return after missing Saturday's game with lower back injury.

"We're struggling," Huggins said. "I'm trying to get us fixed. I have many concerns. It's hard to sit here and put them in order. I'm trying to get them to throw it to the team that has the same color shirt that they have on. They're struggling with that. They're throwing the ball around. Turnovers. We don't rebound it. Other than a couple of guys, we haven't made shots and we haven't made free throws."

The Huskies are dealing with their own issues.

For the second straight game, they will be without injured starters Adama Sanogo (abdominal strain) and Tyrese Martin (left wrist).

WIthout his best big man in Sanogo and toughest player in Martin, Hurley made some adjustments in Saturday's rout of Grambling State. The Huskies extended their defense and sped up the game.

"We're going to have to play this way moving forward," Hurley said Saturday. "Our strength is our athleticism and our mobility. We're going to have to extend our defense and try to really push the ball down the court a lot more, try to speed up the pace of these games without the big fella to throw it into."

Hurley is relying on some players that saw limited action prior to the injuries — redshirt junior AkokAkok, freshmen Samson Johnson and Rahsool Diggins all played a season high for minutes on Saturday — and asking more from his veterans.

While the team's depth took a hit, Hurley is confident that players will step up.

"We've got guys that have helped us win a lot of big games since I've been here the last couple of years — Jalen Gaffney, Tyler Polley. Andre (Jackson) has had enough of a runway over his career now; He's gotten several starts. He's better in the high major games and has better focus than he does in the low major games.

"We've got to find a way to win these games. We don't want Adama and Tyrese returning to something that is going bad. It may not be pretty, but we've got to find a way in UConn fashion to win enough games the way we did last year when Bouk was out."

Bouk is former UConn star James Bouknight who missed eight games with an elbow injury last season. The Huskies went 4-4 in his absence, counting the Marquette game that Bouknight left with an injury in the first half.

UConn may only have to survive one more game without Martin after facing West Virginia — Saturday versus St. Bonaventure in Newark, N.J. He could return as early as the Big East opener against Providence on Dec. 18 in Hartford.

g.keefe@theday.com

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