The University of Connecticut began this basketball season as the butt of an acerbic joke around the Big East. The final preseason vote predicting the order of finish in the conference would place the Huskies 10th. There are nine teams in the league.
Crueler jokes were played on Connecticut once the season started. The Huskies would lead host Villanova by six points before losing in overtime. They would lose to Iona, which has lost only once, by a point. They would lose at Minnesota by one, and to Ohio State by seven in what basically was a two-point game.
But Connecticut played a little joke of its own Saturday. It beat then seventh-ranked Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. Now the Huskies hope to carry the energy from that major upset into Capital Centre tonight for their 8 o'clock date with top-ranked and undefeated Georgetown.
UConn's aforementioned favorable showings, plus a Big East victory over Pittsburgh, have quieted, if not eliminated, the laughter.
"I heard the jokes in the preseason and I wasn't too excited about hearing that stuff," Connecticut Coach Dom Perno said yesterday before he and his team boarded a flight to Washington. "It wasn't so much that I was upset, but that I was annoyed at the way people were knocking the recruits. And they were making jokes about what we do to make a living.
"What did I tell the team? I told them, 'Hey, it's our team and that's what's most important.' " And that when a team is picked to finish last, "the only place we could go was up."
The Huskies still aren't that good a team. They have a record of 6-7 overall, 2-3 in the Big East. Most likely, they will struggle in vain against a Georgetown team that is 17-0 this season (6-0 in the Big East) and has won 28 straight games. But Connecticut certainly has improved, as evidenced by the upset at Syracuse.
"We're playing pretty well right now," Perno said. "There's a fine line between winning some of those games and losing, like the games against Minnesota and Iona where we had the ball with a chance to win in the last 30 seconds.
"But even though we lost those close games, things were encouraging, since people said we weren't even going to be a factor in the league. We were able to hang in there and be in the hunt with some of the toughest teams in the nation. The Big East is a son of a gun, and the kids have persevered and showed some character."
The Huskies will need some rebounding and defense to go along with character if they expect to keep up with Georgetown. Tim Coles, a 6-foot-7 center from Baltimore, is averaging nearly eight rebounds per game. He'll need inside help from forward Ray Broxton, whose path to UConn included stops at Old Dominion as a freshman, home to Daytona Beach, junior college in 1982-83, and finally to Storrs, Conn., last season.
Broxton, one of only two seniors on a team with no three-year lettermen, scores 14 points per game and shoots 58 percent. But when it comes to offense -- points in a hurry -- Connecticut looks to Earl Kelley, who is averaging just more than 14 points per game, just as he did last season.
Connecticut's big area of improvement has been offense. The Huskies are shooting 48 percent, up from 45 percent last year. "Our defense has been fairly stable all year," Perno said. "We shot so poorly last season that we're paying more attention to the shot selection."
Perno, asked how excited his team is about playing Georgetown, said, "Probably, very excited. Here's the No. 1 team in the country, and it's an unbelievable challenge. What can I say about Georgetown that hasn't already been said? They have to win handily all the time or it's like a defeat to a lot of people. Even when they're not playing that well they always put together a spurt of 10 or 12 points. That's just one of many things we have to be concerned about."