Favorite label again sticks to UConn

Vanderbilt next bump for Huskies as they try to handle high expectations

NCAA Men's Tournament

March 25, 2004|By Matt Eagan | Matt Eagan,THE HARTFORD COURANT

PHOENIX - All season, people have been talking about Connecticut.

The Huskies are great. What's wrong with the Huskies? The Huskies are great. What's wrong with the Huskies?

That's the burden of a top preseason ranking. But a full season at the center of the scuttlebutt has prepared the Huskies for this week and a cunning Vanderbilt plan to win this Phoenix Regional semifinal tonight through flattery.

"We are an extreme underdog," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "There is not much belief or thought out there that we can win. Connecticut is a great basketball team. Probably the most talented in the NCAA tournament."

The Huskies were prepared for this. When Stanford and North Carolina State lost over the weekend, the chatter started again. The bracket had been blown wide-open for second-seeded UConn.

"We're used to people saying good things about us. We don't really buy into that," UConn guard Ben Gordon said. "People have been jumping on and off our bandwagon all year, so we can't be paying attention to what people are saying about us or our opponents."

Coach Jim Calhoun is even more blunt.

"If you take anything for granted in this tournament, you are going to take a ride home," Calhoun said. "In this tournament, you do not need to be good for a season. You do not need to have better talent or experience. All you need is to be good for 40 minutes."

Vanderbilt (23-9) is good enough to be good for that long.

The Commodores present an odd challenge for UConn. Their two tallest players, 6-foot-10 Matt Freije and 7-foot-2 Dawid Przybyszewski, have each shot more than 100 three-pointers this season.

Freije, a unanimous All-Southeastern Conference first-team selection, presents a similar matchup problem for the Huskies as Miami's Darius Rice. His game is more power-oriented than Rice's, but Freije can still bring his defenders outside.

The Huskies will start with freshman forward Josh Boone (South Carroll) guarding Freije and could mix in a variety of defenders. Charlie Villanueva. Hilton Armstrong. Shamon Tooles. All could be asked to stop the Commodores' leading scorer.

"He's an inside-outside-type player," Boone said. "We're really going to have to make sure we don't lose him on the perimeter because if he gets open he is going to hit a three."

So will Przybyszewski. The junior center from Poland is 49 of 108 (45.4 percent) on three-pointers this season and could pull Emeka Okafor away from the basket.

UConn (29-6) has its advantages. The Huskies are faster at every position than the Commodores. They will attempt to use that advantage by applying perimeter pressure on defense and running the fast break on offense.

This is what Stallings fears most.

"If the game is a track meet, we are going to be in trouble," Stallings said. "They're the fastest team from the defensive boards to the offensive end that I have seen in college basketball. If we can control some of that transition, that is key."

Familiar foes have been able to curtail the Huskies' transition game, but opponents seeing it for the first time have not been as successful.

Vanderbilt may not be as familiar with UConn as other Big East teams, but the Commodores have seen the Huskies in each of the past two seasons. UConn beat Vanderbilt, 84-71, at the Hartford Civic Center to open the 2001-02 season. The Huskies won, 76-70, in Nashville last season.

"That might be a bit of an advantage to them if they want to slow us down," Gordon said. "But even if we're not getting layups, if we just keep running, sooner or later we'll have an advantage with our running game."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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