ORLANDO, Fla. — The Huskies left the cold and the snow behind in Cincinnati and, with their margin for error dwindling, needed to leave the disappointment of their loss to the Bearcats back there, too.
UConn's chances of catching Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference standings is about gone, but the season continues with hopes intact. The Huskies can make the regular season irrelevant later, but need to smooth out inconsistencies and keep stuffing their record with victories against the league's foundering bottom half.
"Invariably, you're going to be hamstrung in any conference by the bottom teams," said Joe Lunardi, ESPN's NCAA bracket analyst. "You can't choose not to play them, and in some cases twice. UConn is in a league with more RPI anchors than it was in before."
Coach Kevin Ollie envisions Central Florida, despite its seven-game losing streak and despite its one-sided loss at UConn in January, to be a different team when the Huskies take the floor against the Knights at CFE Arena on Sunday at 6 p.m.
"They're going to be a desperate team," Ollie said. "They're going to be different at home than they were at Gampel, and we've got to be ready to play. We can't say, 'Oh, we ran over that team.' No, they're going to be a different team. [Isaiah] Sykes is going to play well, they're going to play with effort and we've got to get back to playing Connecticut basketball. We've got to get back to sharing the basketball."
The Huskies (17-5, 5-4 AAC) didn't practice Friday. They hope to have DeAndre Daniels (back spasms) in the lineup. They should play like a desperate team, perhaps, but they are not there yet. They were ranked 33rd in the RPI and, despite the loss at No. 7 Cincinnati, Lunardi had them at No. 30 on Friday afternoon.
"It didn't really hurt them that much," he said. "If it were at home, it could have."
What is unique about the AAC in its inaugural season is the disparity between its first five teams and the rest. Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, UConn and Southern Methodist are in good shape to make the NCAA Tournament, and there appears little chance one of the others will be able to steal a bid with a run at the conference tournament.
The Huskies' remaining nine games include five against the bottom five — at UCF, at Temple, Rutgers at home and South Florida home and away. Their other games are home against Cincinnati and Memphis, and at Louisville. There's time and opportunity to get to 22 or 23 wins.
"UConn is not a team I've even considered in any trouble," Lunardi said. "Their margin for error is decent. Certainly, they can repeat 5-4 [the rest of the way]."
Lunardi projects UConn as the 28th overall seed in the tournament, and the last No. 7 seed in a regional. If the Huskies can finish strong, they could play their way up to a No. 4. If they are upset once or twice by "bottom-halfers," they could fall to a 10th seed, Lunardi said.
The Huskies, No. 22 in the AP Poll, are 12-1 outside the conference, against a schedule that included wins over Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Washington, Harvard and Boston University, all top-100 teams in the RPI. That put them in strong position for the NCAA Tournament, although Cincinnati (11-0) has run away with the AAC.
The Huskies' loss at Houston on Dec. 31 is their only one to a lower echelon conference team.
If the loss at Cincinnati didn't damage UConn's postseason hopes, it did put a limp in their swagger. The Huskies built a 10-point lead in the first half that disappeared in the second, when Cincinnati shot 52.2 percent from the floor, and UConn shot 32 percent. As in earlier losses, such as Stanford and SMU, the Huskies got away from attacking the basket and instead took low-percentage three-pointers, and they went 5-for-21.
"I just had a bad shooting night," said Shabazz Napier, 5-for-19, 2-for-12 on threes. "When you miss shots you normally make, it can look like you're settling. But I need to do a better job of getting to the basket."
The Huskies had only six assists at Cincinnati. In their 84-61 win over UCF on Jan. 11, the Huskies were 5-for-17 on three-point shots but moved the ball much better, getting 19 assists on 29 baskets, and were especially effective at getting the ball inside to Amida Brimah, who had 20 points. That's the business model that works for UConn.