UConn men finally resume season, begin Big East play vs. Creighton; more schedule adjustments to come

Dom Amore, Hartford Courant

The last 46 days have been difficult, frustrating, for coach Dan Hurley and the UConn men’s basketball team. Two separate suspensions of play due to COVID-19 positive tests within the program have made it impossible to guess how the Huskies will function when Creighton comes to Gampel Pavilion.

“You put up a strong front, a confident front in front of the players and in front of [the media],” Hurley said Saturday in a ZOOM call with state reporters, “but I’m incredibly nervous and anxious about what we’re going to look like against one of the best teams in the country after what’s gone on the last 40 days. ... It’s been a mess.”

Since the first positive test Nov. 5, Hurley noted, there have been many more days in which UConn players and coaches had to sit, than days in which they could hold a fairly normal practice. They had only 11 practices in 39 days before the most recent shutdown ended on Dec. 13.

Now, after a week of practices under modified quarantine conditions, UConn faces the No. 9 team in the AP Poll, and the Big East co-champs in the regular season a year ago. As the Huskies look for their rhythm, Creighton (5-2) comes off a win at St. John’s on Thursday, and has the conference’s preseason player of the year, Marcus Zegarowski, in top form.

“You’ve got a point guard who’s like a maestro, the way Zegarowski is,” Hurley said, “and just how beautifully he plays the position. It puts you in a real bind when he’s in a ball screen with a [center] who can roll and finish, and he’s got three shooters on the perimeter. You have maybe the best point guard in the country, maybe the best shooter in [Mitch] Ballock and then outstanding wings, [Denzel] Mahoney and [Damien] Jefferson. ... They’re loaded.”

All of the above are scoring in double figures, as is Christian Bishop. Zegarowski, averaging 14.7 points and 5.7 assists, shooing 41.2 percent on 3-pointers, orchestrates the Bluejays’ balanced, position-less approach. That will likely prevent UConn from using a bigger lineup, given the need to defend the perimeter.

“We’ve got flexibility in terms of the way we can play,” Hurley said. “We wanted to play bigger this year because we like our frontcourt talent and depth, but that’s a hard thing to do against Creighton.”

The Huskies (3-0) will be 17 days removed from their last, and most significant win of the season, the 61-58 rock fight against Southern Cal at Mohegan Sun. They’ll have to bring the same defensive intensity to stay in this game as they shake off the rust and work out the offensive kinks. But if the Huskies can win, they could make their own case for cracking the rankings because this is the Big East, the first of 20 games in a conference in which all 10 teams are in the top 100 of Ken Pomeroy’s power rankings.

“For us, you watch these games and you see how hard it is to win games in a league that’s maybe the best conference in the country,” Hurley said, “or top two or three. There is not a win that you get in this league that you ever have to apologize for.

UConn may be without Tyler Polley, a potential key to defending Creighton’s wing players. Polley has returned after major knee surgery, but has another, undisclosed issue and his availability will be a game-day decision. The two layoffs have also set back Akok Akok, who is recovering from a ruptured Achilles suffered last season. Originally expected to be ready to return around Jan 1, Akok likely won’t be ready until further into the new year.

For the moment, the Huskies just need to play games, and barring last-minute setback, they will play a big one on Sunday, before facing another 10-day gap in the schedule.

“I have a tremendous appreciation that we get a chance to play right now,” Hurley said, “and we have a duty to get out there and give the best account of ourselves in any opportunities that we get to play.”

Scheduling adjustments

UConn’s scheduled game at DePaul on Wednesday has been postponed. According to UConn, the Connecticut Department of Public Health advised against playing DePaul, which will be less than 14 days removed from its most recent positive COVID-19 test. No makeup date was announced.

So the Huskies have open space between Sunday and their scheduled home game against DePaul on Dec. 30, perhaps a chance to make up one of their previously postponed conference games. Hurley said he is hesitant to play a nonconference opponent, and a Big East makeup game would be more likely on Dec. 27 than Tuesday or Wednesday.

DePaul has yet to play a game this season. ... The Big East announced start times for some future games. The game vs. DePaul on Dec. 30 starts at 9 p.m., televised by CBS Sports Network; the game at Marquette Jan. 5 is 9 p.m. on FS1. UConn’s game at Butler on Jan. 9 is a 4 p.m. start on CBS Sports Network, and the home game vs. Villanova on Jan. 15 starts at 9 p.m. on FS1.

Dom Amore can be reached at damore@courant.com.