BUFFALO, N.Y. (March 18) The Connecticut mens basketball team will open 2004 NCAA Championship play on Thursday night, when the second-seeded Huskies take on America East Champions Vermont at 7:10 pm at the HSBC Arena in Buffalo, N.Y. The game will be aired on CBS.
UConn enters the tournament with a record of 27-6 overall and comes off a 71-68 victory over Pittsburgh to claim the 2004 BIG EAST Tournament Championship on March 13 at Madison Square Garden. The Catamounts are a 15th seed in NCAA Tournament and hold a record of 22-8. Vermont defeated Maine 72-53 in the championship game of the America East Tournament on March 13 in Burlington, Vt. earning an automatic bid into the NCAA Championship for the second straight year.
The Huskies and the Catamounts have met 52 times in the series history, with UConn holding a 44-8 advantage. The teams last faced-off on November 19, 1999, an 89-52 win for Connecticut at Gampel Pavilion.
UConn has a record of 8-5 this season against teams that are part of the field of 65 for the 2004 NCAA Tournament. Connecticut has wins over Lehigh, Boston College, Utah, Nevada, Pittsburgh (2), Seton Hall and Syracuse. The Huskies have lost to NCAA participants Providence, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Syracuse.
Connecticuts berth into the 2004 NCAA Championship is the schools 25th trip to the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament, dating back to 1951. In 53 games played in its first 24 trips to the NCAA Tourney, UConn is 30-23 overall. In Jim Calhouns 18 years as UConn head coach, the Huskies have earned 12 NCAA berths and posted a 26-9 record in the tournament. This is the fifth time UConn is entering the tournament as the No. 2 seed and has not advanced past the Final Eight as this seed.
Playing in the NCAA First and Second Rounds, the Huskies are a superb 20-2 in competition in UConns 11 tourney appearances under Calhoun. The Huskies are a spotless 11-0 in NCAA First Round action and 8-2 in Second Round matchups.
UConn is only one of four schools (among 326 NCAA Division I intuitions) to have advanced to national post-season tournament competition (NCAA or NIT) in each of the past 17 seasons. Under the guidance of Calhoun, Connecticut has 12 NCAA Championship bids and five NIT berths. The four institutions that have advanced to national post-season play for 17 consecutive seasons include: Arizona, Connecticut, Oklahoma and Texas.
Calhoun is in his 18th season in charge of the Huskies and his 32nd season as a collegiate head coach. Calhoun enters the 2004 NCAA Championship with an overall record of 674-302 (69.1%). He has a record of 426-165 (72.1%) in 18 years at Connecticut and was 248-137 (64.4%) in 14 seasons at Northeastern. He has a 26-9 record in NCAA Tournament play while at Connecticut. Calhoun has a 74.5 percent winning percentage in 16 previous national post-season tournaments while at UConn (38-13 overall; 26-9 NCAA play; 12-4 in NIT play).
We're ready. We've had our ups and downs this season, but I think we're starting to peak right now, said UConn junior Emeka Okafor. Everyone talks about the last three games, but weve won nine out of 10. We've got a pretty good system right now, and we're planning on playing six more games.
Okafor is averaging 18.5 points, 11.6 rebounds and 4.5 blocked shots per game. He has been ranked first nationally in blocked shots and second in rebounding this season, as well as being ranked eighth in field goal percentage. He leads the country with 20 double-doubles on the season, including a triple-double. Okafor earned a trifecta at the BIG EAST Championship when he was honored as the BIG EAST Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and the Scholar-Athlete of the Year. He became the first player to ever earn all three of these prestigious awards in his career, much less in the same season.
I won't be matched up against him (Emeka Okafor). It will be tough, said Vermont forward Taylor Coppenrath. He is big and real talented, and can score. We will try to keep him off the glass and hope to get him into foul trouble.
BIG EAST All-First Team member and BIG EAST Tournament Most Valuable Player Ben Gordon is averaging 18.1 points per game and also averages 4.8 assists and 4.8 rebounds. At the BIG EAST Tournament, Gordon paced the Huskies and led them to the championship title averaging 27 points per game and hitting the game-winning shot with 30.4 second remaining.
It's all on us to build on what we've done in the last three games. We can't let it go to our heads based on the level of competition, but I think we've done a good job blowing off what we did in the Big East Tournament, said Gordon. We're a close-knit team. We enjoy having fun and horsing around and stuff like that. I think stuff like that helps come tournament time.
Vermont has won 10 times on the road this season, including nine consecutive road victories, both new school records. The team also set schools records for most wins in a season with 22, a streak of 13 straight win and its 12-0 start in conference play was the best start in program history. The program sold-out a school record five games at Patrick Gym and averaged a new mark of 2,707 fans per game.
The team ranks fifth in the nation in fewest fouls committed per game at 15.2, 24th in fewest turnovers per game at 12.6 and 35th in defense at 62.4 points per game.
The Catamounts are led by the two-time America East Player of the Year Coppenrath. He posted a career-high 43 points in Vermonts win over Maine in the America East final. Coppenrath is the nations third leading scorer averaging 24.7 points per game while adding 7.4 rebounds.
He's gotten a lot of attention because he deserves it. He's a great player, said Okafor on Coppenrath. On my part, I couldn't ask for anything better. I'm up to the challenge. It's going to be a real tough game.
Vermont is led by 18th year head coach Tom Brennan and holds a record of 239-268 in his tenure. Brennan has led the Catamounts to three straight 20-win seasons, three America East Tournament crowns and the schools first two trips to the NCAA Tournament. Brennan is in his 23rd year as a collegiate coach with a 291-344 record.
I'm an optimistic guy, I don't see many flaws in our team, so you can imagine how many I saw in UConn, said Brennan. You have to believe. I told the team if you don't believe it can happen, then we might as well go home right now.