FANFARE AT MADISON SQUARE
NEW YORK - Even when the offense went cold and when Shabazz Napier was sitting on the bench, the UConn men's basketball team found a way to get to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament.
The games will not get any easier, but with two wins separating UConn from a fifth Final Four, the Huskies will play in a familiar building in front of familiar fans.
UConn, the No. 7 seed in the East Region, will face No. 3 Iowa State in the Sweet 16 Friday night, in front of what is expected to be a pro-UConn crowd at Madison Square Garden.
For most of the week, the price of a ticket to Friday's doubleheader, which also features No. 1 Virginia taking on No. 4 Michigan State, has been on the up and up. On Thursday afternoon, tickets were going for more than $600 for the worst seats available, more expensive than Final Four tickets.
The reason for such high ticket prices: UConn fans.
The Huskies will not be playing regularly at Madison Square Garden anymore, a consequence of conference realignment. The Garden has long been a special place for UConn fans, and the Huskies' appearance in the East Regional gives them a distinct advantage over the other three teams.
"I'm just happy because it's going to be a great atmosphere," junior forward DeAndre Daniels said. "All the UConn fans are going to be here. It's going to be crazy, and it's just going to get us even more pumped up to see all the UConn people here. And we just want to go out there and play hard for the fans and play hard for ourselves, as UConn, as a team."
Having the crowd will be important for the Huskies, as they face one of the hottest teams in the NCAA tournament.
The Cyclones are the highest-scoring team in the tournament, putting up 83 points per game between wins over North Carolina Central and North Carolina, mostly because they have made 53 percent of their shots and have hit 48.8 percent of their 3-pointers.
Leading the way for Iowa State is DeAndre Kane, a 6-foot-4 point guard. The transfer from Marshall, playing in his first and only NCAA tournament, is averaging 19 points and 8.5 rebounds per game through the opening weekend. Kane scored the winning bucket with two seconds remaining against North Carolina, splitting the defense and driving to the lane to get the layup.
"We just got to try our best to contain him," senior guard Shabazz Napier said. "And they shoot a lot of threes, and they make a lot of threes. We got to do a good job of contesting shots."
Including Kane, Iowa State will start four players who are averaging 14 points or more per game in the NCAA tournament, including Melvin Ejim, the Big 12 Player of the Year, who is averaging 18 points per game and making 61.5 percent of his shots.
This will be the second meeting ever between the Huskies and Cyclones. The first was at the end of UConn's miserable 2011-12 season, which ended in the Second Round of the NCAA tournament with a 77-64 loss to Iowa State.
That Iowa State team was all about Royce White. That UConn team had no concept of brotherhood, a foundation of Kevin Ollie's team.
"Two completely different teams, completely different teams," junior guard Ryan Boatright said. "For us ... we're actually a team. 2012 was too much individual stuff. This year, everybody's buying into one goal, and that's winning games."
What is the same this year is Madison Square Garden: where UConn won seven Big East tournament titles, where Kemba Walker, Ray Allen and Taliek Brown each wrote themselves into UConn history with a single shot, where Shabazz Napier led the Huskies to two important victories in November's 2K Sports Classic.
"It's special, I can't say it's not," Ollie said. "Just playing at Madison Square Garden, the greatest arena alive for basketball, the Mecca of basketball, it's just a great place to play. And then our fans can come, too. It's just a train ride away from Connecticut. ... I know there's going to be a lot of people here cheering for us."
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