The question gets asked more and more: Is Connecticut vulnerable? The answer could be evident in the next few days, a tough Big East Conference swing for the Huskies that starts this afternoon against host Georgetown.
No one assumed the Huskies would be as dominant as last season, when they won the league's regular season and tournament championships and capped a 34-2 performance by beating powerful Duke for the national championship.
Still, even after losing all-American Richard Hamilton and some other significant players, they were ranked No. 1 in the preseason by the two major polls. They still are No. 8, but have lost league games at home to Notre Dame and St. John's. With a 1-2 record, they trail eight teams in the league, including the 2-3 Hoyas. They play at unbeaten Syracuse Monday.
"I would not classify them as vulnerable," Georgetown Coach Craig Esherick said. "They're different from last year. A lot bigger, and just as dangerous."
Meanwhile, 24th-ranked Maryland might get a chance to see just how valuable preseason all-American forward Terence Morris is to the team when the Terrapins host Clemson this afternoon. Morris, who sprained his left ankle in Wednesday's 73-51 victory over Wake Forest, yesterday missed a second consecutive day of practice and there is a good chance he will not play today.
"You do not want a guy out there going half-speed or quarter-speed," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said yesterday. "If he can go, he will play."
Williams said that X-rays on Morris's ankle were negative and that the 6-foot-9 junior has been receiving treatment daily. If he is unable to play, 6-10 freshman Tahj Holden, who had a career-high 17 points and six rebounds against Wake Forest, likely will start. Holden said his standout performance created a ruckus in his parents' home in Red Bank, N.J.
"They were a little excited, they're still a little excited and they will probably be excited for a long time," Holden said before practice yesterday. "My mom called me before the game to wish me good luck. She called me after the game before I got home. She called me when I was in the shower. My aunt called. My grandmother called the next day. My other aunt called from New Jersey. They are excited to see me doing well."
At MCI Center, Connecticut also might have a different look today. Indications are that veteran Kevin Freeman will return to power forward from small forward in an effort to reinforce the rebounding and freshman Doug Wrenn will start at small forward. Against unusually small St. John's Sunday, U-Conn. was outrebounded and outscored inside.
Before any lineup changes were announced, the 6-7 Freeman told local reporters he would join 6-11 Jake Voskuhl up front against the Hoyas.
"I'll still be playing some [small forward] at times," Freeman said. "But with me and Jake inside, that will start things off for us, especially on defense. . . . Georgetown will be a good game where he can get his confidence going."
Freeman moved outside to enhance his pro prospects, but neither 6-8 junior Edmund Saunders nor highly regarded 6-10 sophomore Ajou Deng was effective during league starts at power forward.
Switching Freeman inside today would be appropriate, because the Hoyas have rebounded exceptionally well of late. Shooting and ball handling were much improved during the second half of their most recent game, a 72-69 victory at Boston College on Tuesday.
Still, the game will revolve around point guards Khalid El-Amin of the Huskies and Georgetown's Kevin Braswell. Said U-Conn. assistant Karl Hobbs of Braswell: "When he plays well, they're very good."
At Cole Field House, Maryland will be seeking to build momentum off its first victory in Atlantic Coast Conference play this season. The Terrapins (11-5 overall, 1-3 ACC) played one of their most complete games of the season against Wake Forest. Aside from first-place Duke (5-0 ACC), every ACC team has at least two conference losses.
"We are still scratching, just trying to climb back into it," Williams said. "This is a key game for us. If we get this one, we climb back into the mix."
Clemson (6-11, 0-4) enters with a five-game losing streak, including Wednesday's 72-60 loss to visiting Appalachian State. The Tigers' top threat is sophomore guard Will Solomon, who leads the conference in scoring at 21.6 points per game.
Also today, George Mason should get a boost from the return of forward George Evans, who missed Wednesday's 63-61 loss to Detroit because of tendinitis in his left forearm. Evans practiced with the team yesterday and is probable for today's game, according to an athletic department spokesman. American, which has lost seven of its past nine games, is at Colonial Athletic Association-leading Richmond.
Special correspondent Seth Emerson contributed to this report.