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Diet of cupcakes could stunt UConn's growth

Connecticut's charade is about to end, maybe as soon as today. And the Huskies aren't alone in still having a lot to prove thanks to a schedule sweetened by cupcakes.

Some e-mailing Huskie fans think I've been too tough on coach Jim Calhoun's schedule. And it's fair to point out that UConn's January slate is spiced by two neat nonleaguers (at LSU and home versus Indiana). But that doesn't excuse the first two months.

UConn's first 11 games were all at home and only two of the opponents -- Mississippi and Albany -- have winning records. It adds up to a schedule strength rated No. 316 out of the 336 Division I schools, and the worst among any in a power conference.

Certainly it's no crime what Calhoun did to beef up the confidence of a young team dealing with heavy graduation losses and the early defection to the NBA of Rudy Gay. But the inexperienced lineup will almost certainly start to pay the piper in conference play; it could happen today at 11-1 West Virginia (2 p.m., ESPN2).

"I think we're going to prove we're pretty good when it's all said and done," Calhoun insisted after Wednesday's 84-41 destruction of Coppin State. "But we've got places to go and certainly some people to play against."

That's for sure. UConn's poll rankings (14th in the AP and 11th by the coaches) are based solely on its unbeaten record, and the fact it's just 81st in the Ratings Percentage Index shows how poor the schedule is. One loss and the Huskies will sink fast in the polls.

Here's a look at a few other teams with gaudy records who might be exposed with conference play looming:

Clemson (13-0): The Tigers have cracked the polls for the first time since 1999 and have a couple of nice road wins at Old Dominion and South Carolina. Coach Oliver Purnell, who did wonders in the Atlantic 10 at Dayton, has experienced guards but the Tigers shoot just 62 percent at the free-throw line and you've got to believe that will come into play in close ACC battles.

Purdue (10-3): A great coaching job by Matt Painter already has the Boilermakers with one more win than all of last year, including victories over Oklahoma in Maui and Missouri. But Purdue got drubbed Thursday at Indiana State and will probably struggle just to stay over .500 and make the NIT.

Missouri (9-2): The Tigers' slide has already begun after a 9-0 start under ex-UAB coach Mike Anderson. Losses to Purdue and Illinois and a long exam break mean Mizzou hasn't won since Dec. 3.

Oregon (12-0): Folks out West say this is Ernie Kent's best club since the Elite Eight squad of 2001 and a seven-point win at Georgetown seems to back that up. We'll find out a lot from a Jan. 6 visit by No. 1 UCLA.

Kansas State (10-3): Bob Huggins' first edition in Manhattan has endured a 30-point beating at California and a 24-point pasting at New Mexico but has recovered to win six straight. Huggins' next three are huge -- he returns home to Cincinnati to play Xavier on Wednesday, then plays at Texas A&M and hosts Texas Tech.

And Huggins got a huge addition four games ago when 6-foot-6 freshman Bill Walker of Cincinnati became eligible. Walker has averaged 14.3 points thus far and could be the difference to get K-State into the NCAAs.

Syracuse (10-3): Too bad Niagara Falls star Jonathan Flynn wasn't running the Orange offense this year. SU needs better point guard play and far better rebounding against Big East opponents. Syracuse has lost to the top three foes on its schedule (Wichita State, Oklahoma State and Drexel) and opens conference play with two toughies (Thursday at home against Pittsburgh and Jan. 7 at Marquette).


Around the rim

*Duquesne coach Ron Everhart missed his team's 98-93 overtime upset win Thursday at Boston College because he was hospitalized for an intestinal disorder. No coach in the country has dealt with the stress that Everhart has after five of his players were shot in September. This program is definitely on the move after posting just one winning season the last 20 years.

*Drexel (9-2) is the Colonial Athletic Association team that could make the most noise in March. The Dragons' last four games were wins at Villanova, Syracuse and Temple and Thursday's 61-49 home win over George Mason (just 5-5 after its Final Four season). Drexel is up to No. 7 in the RPIs, an amazing figure for a mid-major.

*A comment on his alma mater's recent play, perhaps? Detroit assistant Garland Mance, the former St. Bonaventure star, left under his own power Thursday after vomiting on the Allen Fieldhouse court during the Titans' loss at Kansas. Afterward, he blamed some bad barbecue from the pregame meal.


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