One injury after another, and losses at Cincinnati and South Florida, have created a strange, untidy final chapter to the story the Huskies have been writing, but coach Kevin Ollie hasn't forgotten all that came before.
"We're going to go out and play hard with who we have," Ollie said Friday via teleconference, the day before the Huskies will take on Providence in the season finale at noon at Gampel Pavilion. "This is going to be my favorite group ever. We could go out and lose by 50, it's not going to change the way I feel about them."
The Huskies (19-9, 9-8 Big East), have one goal: to get to 20 wins. But they still have their multiple causes for motivation. Gampel Pavilion is sold out and fans on the Internet have been trying to spread the suggestion of giving a standing ovation, win or lose, at the end of the game. Wins over Michigan State, Notre Dame and Syracuse and the double OT loss to Georgetown are among the defining games for this team.
"We owe it to the fans," Ollie said, "to go out and give it all we got. If you're healthy enough to play, you owe it to the fans to go out and play. I'm not inclined to sit anybody."
The losses of Enosch Wolf to a suspension following an arrest on Feb. 13, of Tyler Olander to a broken left foot and Niels Giffey to a broken right finger, have left UConn with just one healthy center, freshman Phil Nolan, who has only recently played significant minutes.
Shabazz Napier, the Huskies' leading scorer, has missed the past two games with a foot injury and though Ollie said he was "feeling better," he remains questionable. Omar Calhoun has been playing with his sprained right wrist in a wrap and has been severely hampered the past two games. Ollie said Calhoun was "hurting real bad," so it's questionable what he can offer.
That means former walk-on Brendan Allen and freshman Leon Tolksdorf could be pressed into meaningful service on Saturday. R.J. Evans would start in Napier's place, as he has the past two games.
With this skeleton group, the Huskies must fight the hottest team in the league. Providence, which began the conference play 2-7, has won seven of eight to vault into NCAA Tournament contention. The Friars have clinched a first-round bye for the Big East tournament. They have Bryce Cotton, who is averaging 20 points, as the outside threat and Kadeem Batts, 6 feet 10, who had 27 points and 12 rebounds in the win over Seton Hall, as the inside guy.
In one of UConn's signature wins this season, the Huskies were outrebounded at Providence 55-24, yet found a way to win in overtime.
"This is a great team," Ollie said. "Batts is one of the – he is the most improved player in the Big East. DeAndre Daniels is right there behind him."
Was that a subtle call for Daniels, who has 65 points and 28 rebounds in the past three games, to pick it up even higher? Daniels' late-season emergence has been impressive enough for NBA scouts to begin taking notes.
Napier, too, generates talk of an early entry for the draft. But if the Huskies remain intact and get healthy, they could be an exciting team in the new conference. The Huskies would like to leave that message Saturday.
"I've seen this group make great strides," Ollie said, "and make great progress and stick together through all the ups and downs. These last three games are not going to dampen our parade. We're going to walk off with our heads high and our chests out because we've played as hard as we possibly could."