Time running short for Connecticut, which hosts SMU

It’s still the regular season, but excuse the Connecticut Huskies for feeling that they are playing tournament games every time they take the court.

A loss doesn’t mean elimination or the end of the season. Not yet. But any loss is another opportunity slipping through their fingers. And in late February that can be devastating to a team trying to overcome a rough start back in November.

With No. 17 SMU (24-4, 14-1 American) coming into the XL Center Saturday (noon), there is an opportunity for a signature win. It just doesn’t seem as promising as it might have been if UConn (14-13, 9-6) had held on for a victory over Houston on Wednesday.

UConn’s four-game winning streak ended when the Huskies couldn’t hold a 39-29 halftime and the Cougars went to a 75-70 win that moved them into third place in the American behind SMU and Cincinnati.

Coach Kevin Ollie and the Huskies agreed that they stopped playing smart basketball at the start of the second half,

“We went back to playing ‘me’ basketball,” Ollie said. “Turnovers, people taking ill-advised shots and that’s not UConn basketball,”

UConn’s season appeared all but over early in January when the Huskies had lost six of eight games and were dropping like a malfunctioning elevator in the American Athletic Conference standings and the RPI. But the Huskies energized their fan base by winning seven of eight, including a squeaker against Memphis and a buzzer beater at Temple last week.

Landing an at-large spot in the NCAA field is no longer an attainable goal for the Huskies, who currently are fourth in the AAC.

“That (Houston) game is behind us,” guard Jalen Adams said. “We’ve got to get ready for SMU. We’ve got to win that game.”

A spot in the NIT might be the most realistic aspiration, But if they can finish in the top five of the American, theyearn a bye in the first round bye and begin play in the quarterfinals. They will have the advantage of playing in the XL Center, their second home arena, but would still need three consecutive wins to win the championship and gain the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA.

SMU remains the hottest team in the AAC. The Mustangs have won 10 straight, their second such streak of the season, They have clinched no worse than the No. 2 seed in the conference tourney, but Tim Jankovich’s team has its aim on the top seed.

SMU has held 20 of the last 21 opponents to 66 points or less. The Mustangs have a season scoring defense of 58.9 that ranks third in the NCAA. SMU is also among the national leaders with a rebound margin of plus-10.9, best in the AAC. The Mustangs have outrebounded 25 of 28 opponents. They are coming off a 76-66 win over Houston.

“We looked at this season as an opportunity to, not necessarily get back on the map, but just to get what we owe ourselves,” sophomore guard Jarrey Foster said. “We owe ourselves a lot, just how much we’ve been through.”

UConn lost three injured players — including two starters — to injuries in November, SMU started the season with 10 scholarship players, three under the NCAA limit, due to sanctions handed down because of violations under former coach Larry Brown.

“Of course, I wish we didn’t have the sanctions that we have and the limitations,” Jankovich said. “But you know what, we’re not going to use this as an excuse, we’ve just learned to deal with the hand that we’re dealt.”