Houston, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - The 17th-ranked Connecticut Huskies and Houston Cougars open up the inaugural American Athletic Conference slate against one another on Tuesday evening at Hofheinz Pavilion.
Kevin Ollie's Huskies are off to a strong start. The team opened the season with nine straight wins before suffering its only loss of the season, a 53-51 nail-biter at home to Stanford. UConn has righted the ship since with back-to- back wins over Washington (82-70) and Eastern Washington (82-65) in the last nine days.
James Dickey's Cougars closed out their non-conference slate with a 54-52 win over Rice on Dec. 21. The victory was just the second in the last five games for Houston, which enters league play with a modest 8-5 record.
Connecticut has won both previous meetings with Houston, although this is the first matchup between the two teams since 2000.
The Huskies played their first home game not in Storrs or Hartford last week when they knocked off Eastern Washington in Bridgeport at Webster Bank Arena. All-American candidate Shabazz Napier led the charge against the Eagles, just missing out on a double-double with 15 points and nine assists. Joining Napier in double-figure scoring were Ryan Boatright (14 pts), Niels Giffey (13 pts), Omar Calhoun (12 pts) and Phillip Nolan (11 pts). The Huskies took a seven- point lead into halftime despite shooting just .407 from the floor in the first 20 minutes. The team was able to up that to an even 50 percent in the second half and went a perfect 18-of-18 from the free-throw line in the second stanza to run away with the win.
The Huskies have played well at both ends of the floor this season and as a result, enjoy a +12.5 scoring margin as conference play begins. The team is shooting a solid .477 from the floor, while holding foes under 40 percent shooting (.380). Not many players in the nation can do what Napier does across the board. The veteran playmaker leads UConn in scoring (15.4 ppg), rebounding (6.3 rpg), assists (5.9 apg) and steals (23). Complementary scoring options come in the form of DeAndre Daniels (13.1 ppg) and Boatright (12.1 ppg).
Not many teams have fought through as much adversity as Houston this season. The Cougars have been plagued by a rash of injuries, including losing second leading scorer Danuel House (15.6 ppg), who went down after seven games with a knee injury. To compound the problem, another starter, L.J. Rose (10.1 ppg) has missed some time with a foot injury, although he is listed as questionable for this contest. Without House and Rose in the lineup, the scoring burden has fallen even heavier on the shoulders of TaShawn Thomas. The 6-foot-8 junior has handled it well and is a dominant force in the frontcourt, shooting .648 from the field, while leading the team in both scoring (17.4 ppg) and rebounding (9.3 rpg).
Houston didn't play particularly well against Rice last time out, but a solid defensive performance saved the day. The Cougars held the Owls to just .305 shooting, while forcing 14 turnovers. The game was won inside, where Houston outscored Rice, 30-14. Thomas was a big reason for that, posting a double- double with game-highs of 16 points and 10 rebounds. Brandon Morris was the only other Cougar to post double digits in points, netting 10 in the low- scoring affair.