For so long, UConn basketball players could count on the opportunity to work The Big Room, to put themselves and their season to the test on the grandest stage.
This coming March will be without that experience, because their postseason ineligibility includes the Big East tournament. So the Huskies must savor opportunities like Tuesday night. Their game against North Carolina State in the Jimmy V. Classic at Madison Square Garden is another chance to play a championship-caliber game in a season that will not have a conventional trophy to take home. The game will start about 9 p.m., the second of a doubleheader that begins with Georgetown vs. Texas.
The Huskies capitalized on the first such opportunity, the Armed Forces Classic at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, in a big way. The country was watching and UConn stunned Michigan State 66-62 on Nov. 9. They lost the final game of the Paradise Jam to New Mexico, however, on Nov. 19.
UConn is now 6-1, and can play right back into the rankings with a win Tuesday night. The stakes are intangible, perhaps, but high because it's a game that could indicate what the Huskies can make of this season.
"We want to [prove something] every game we play," Shabazz Napier said. "We want to go out and show everybody we've got great talent on the court."
There is no better place to do that, of course, than the Garden, often called the world's most famous arena and the mecca of basketball. It may be home to the Knicks and St. John's, but it has also been a home-away-from-home for UConn, scene of some of the Huskies' greatest moments, from the groundbreaking NIT final win over Ohio State in 1988 to Kemba Walker's fall-away jumper to beat Pitt in the 2011 Big East tournament.
"It's still a magical place," said Ollie, who played at the Garden with the Huskies and with several NBA teams, and now can dress to the nines and appear as head coach there for the first time. "You can feel the tradition. I always relished it when I got the opportunity to play there, because of all the people who have walked out on that great floor."
The Huskies, who will play St. John's at MSG on Feb. 6, could use a little Garden magic, or perhaps some karma from past triumphs, in this game. The Wolfpack (4-2) were picked to win the ACC and ranked fourth at the start of the season, slipping after losses to Oklahoma State and Michigan, but are as talented and formidable – long, fast and deep – as any team UConn will play this year.
"C.J. Leslie is tough," Ollie said. "And T.J. Warren is tough. I could go right on down the line. They have a 6-foot-5 point guard [Lorenzo Brown] that's going to be a mismatch problem. They have All-Americans coming off the bench, a nice luxury to have."
Leslie, a 6-9 junior, and Warren, a 6-8 freshman, will be a challenge for UConn's front line, outrebounded in five of six games, which depends so heavily on Tyler Olander, 6-9, who has been limited by foul trouble in three of the last five games. N.C. State, with six players scoring in double figures, can go to almost anyone on the floor.
Meanwhile, N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried is concerned about UConn's guards, namely Ryan Boatright, who figures to be the quickest player on the floor. Gottfried said he will try Scott Wood, 6-6, to defend Boatright, 6-0.
The Huskies rely on their three guards for scoring — Napier, who has scored as many as 29 points and as few as five in a game; Boatright, who scored 19 against New Hampshire on Thursday; and Omar Calhoun, the freshman from Brooklyn who will be playing on the Garden floor for the first time.
"I imagine it packed," Calhoun said. "… everybody screaming, and going out there with a lot of excitement. It's every New York kid's dream to play there."
Napier remembers going onto the Garden floor as a freshman in 2011 and seeing Bill Clinton and Carmelo Anthony in the front row.
"You never know who you're going to see there," Napier said. "It's something big, just to be on that court is like being at the Apollo [theater]. All the lights are on you, but everything else is dark – you can't see the fans, but they can see you and you can hear them. It's the mecca of basketball right there, it's one of the reasons you want to play in the Big East."
Olander says stepping out on the Garden floor "can be nerve-racking at first. … You have to take it all in real quick, and then focus on the game. I'm telling the young guys, 'We're on the big stage now, but you still have to perform. You can't let the atmosphere take you out of that.' "