Connecticut Huskies vs. Xavier Musketeers Pick & Prediction MARCH 14th 2024

NEW YORK — UConn dominated the Big East like never before, and now the defending national champions are setting their sights on winning the conference tournament.

Likely locked into a No. 1 seed at next week’s NCAA Tournament, the second-ranked Huskies play their conference tournament opener Thursday afternoon when they face ninth-seeded Xavier in a quarterfinal matchup. UConn is the Big East tourney’s top seed.

The Huskies (28-3) are seeking their first conference tournament title since Kemba Walker sparked their run to a third national championship in 2011 when they won five games in five days in a 16-team field.

Since returning to the Big East in the 2020-21 season, the Huskies are 3-3 with a trio of close losses in the tournament semifinals. This time the Huskies are the top seed for the first time since 2006 and the prohibitive favorite to win and secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA’s East Region.

“The problem for people when they play against us now is, we’ve got that championship confidence,” UConn coach Danny Hurley said.

After winning its fifth national title as a No. 4 seed last year, the Huskies posted a conference-record 18 Big East wins and earned their last four victories by an average of 18.8 points. They ended their regular season with a 74-60 victory at Providence on Saturday, going on a 33-5 run over 12:02 to finish the first half.

“To be a part of that is special, because of how hard the Big East is and just adding to UConn history and Big East history in general is special to everybody,” Huskies forward Alex Karaban said.

The Huskies head into the postseason after picking up several league honors. Hurley won Big East coach of the year, Tristen Newton and Cam Spencer earned first team All-Big East, Hassan Diarra won sixth man of the year and Stephon Castle was named the freshman of the year.

Xavier (16-16) has the unenviable task of trying to slow UConn. The Musketeers earned the chance by posting a 76-72 win over Butler in the opening round on Wednesday.

“I know we have a big challenge tomorrow,” Musketeers coach Sean Miller said postgame. “That speaks for itself. We’re just thrilled to have the opportunity to play tomorrow.”

Xavier’s Desmond Claude, who was named the Big East’s most improved player and is a native of Connecticut, scored 26 points against the Bulldogs. Dayvion McKnight added 16 of his 20 in the second half, and Quincy Olivari produced a strong all-around showing with 19 points, nine rebounds and six assists.

“It’s just a great feeling and then being able to win here, get the first win and have an opportunity to advance and play UConn,” Olivari said. “It’s a great feeling.”

In the Huskies’ 99-56 victory over the Musketeers in Hartford, Conn., on Jan. 28, UConn shot 58.5 percent from the floor and limited Xavier to 34.4 percent. Xavier had a chance to win when the teams met in Cincinnati on Jan. 10 but took an 80-75 loss.

–Larry Fleisher, Field Level Media

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