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Practice makes perfect for Huskies

NEW YORK -- Crummy defense, lousy rebounding, eight days without a game and Jim Calhoun: There are worse ways to suffer in life.

Like waterboarding.

Maybe.

Such was the fate of the Connecticut Huskies. An abnormal break in the early schedule gave Calhoun more than a week to, ahem, emphasize to his team what exactly their deficiencies were.

"It wasn't fun," senior forward Stanley Robinson said. "Not fun at all."

Eliminating the excess -- as in more than a brief glance on offense -- Calhoun focused almost entirely on his team's defense and even more, its rebounding, ordering up his own special rendition of torture, a box-out drill in which a defender stands on the free throw line and turns around as soon as his opponent shoots to box out and rebound.

Over and over again.

"I think we did it like twice a day instead of once," Robinson said.

Unleashed from their November hell week, the Huskies took their fury out on defending SEC champion LSU, all but smothering the Tigers in the semifinals of the Preseason Tip-Off tournament, 81-55.

UConn, which came into Madison Square Garden down two in the rebounding column against the less-than-formidable opposing lineups of William & Mary, Colgate and Hofstra, outboarded the Tigers 49-36. Factor in LSU's plus-13.7 rebounding edge heading into the game and that's even more impressive.

It was enough to merit high praise from their not-easy-to-please coach.

"I've been waiting since the exhibition season for us to have a breakout; this was it," Calhoun said. "This was the first time I saw Connecticut play in a regular-season game."

If the Huskies want to take the NIT title, he'll have to see Connecticut -- the real Connecticut -- again Friday.

Duke stands between UConn and its first championship here in three tries.

The two powerhouses have staged more than their share of epics -- the 1990 regional final when Christian Laettner played hero; the 1999 championship when Khalid El-Amin iced the title and the 2004 Final Four, when UConn rallied to win.

"I always wanted to play against Duke when I was a kid. If you couldn't go there, you wanted to play against them,'' Robinson said. "One of the reasons I didn't want to go there was because their gym was so small. Nah, I'm just talking.''

Neither the gym nor the stage will be small on Friday night. It may only be November, but this will be a litmus test for both teams.

The Huskies come to the final feeling pretty good about themselves after owning LSU. They rebounded well and played good defense, but also didn't have to face a forest quite like the one Duke rolls out with 6-10 Miles Plumlee, 6-10 Ryan Kelly and 7-foot Brian Zoubek. Or the shooters that the Blue Devils sport in the form of Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer. Or the matchup disaster that is Kyle Singler.

Duke, in the meantime, comes to the Friday game (ESPN, 5 p.m. ET) after breaking a sweat for the first time this season. Arizona State and Herb Sendek's signature zone gave the Blue Devils fits for nearly 30 minutes before they finally broke free for a deceiving 64-53 win.

"You play four games at home and you're running and shooting and things are going easy,'' Mike Krzyzewski said. "And then all of a sudden you're in a possession-by-possession game against a defense that you haven't played against before. And against an offense that's going to control tempo.''

That the Blue Devils handled their first challenge left Krzyzewski nearly as happy as Calhoun. Save for a sloppy opening five minutes, Coach K couldn't find much to complain about. He praised Singler, who opened the game shooting 1-for-8 yet had the courage to take -- and make -- a critical jumper with the score tied in the second half.

He also was equally pleased with his team's defense. Arizona State shot just 39 percent from the floor and was only 1-of-8 from the arc.

But the interesting dynamic against UConn will be how the bigs do. Against a much smaller Sun Devils squad, Plumlee and Zoubek combined for 12 boards while Singler chipped in eight.

Krzyzewski, who said he hasn't seen Connecticut play yet this season, presciently said the championship will likely be won on the boards.

"These games are critical for us,'' Zoubek said. "We really haven't been challenged and you don't always get the chance to play a powerhouse team like Connecticut this early, so this is very important.''

Through the first three games, UConn wasn't exactly a powerhouse. The Huskies weren't bad so much as lackluster. It was like they were waiting until December, when they know help on the boards comes in the form of 6-11 Ater Majok.

"We knew what we were doing wrong," said sophomore point Kemba Walker, who contributed 20 points and five assists against LSU.

It wasn't so much an ability drain -- with the talent that constantly refreshes itself on the Connecticut roster it would be silly to say the Huskies aren't good enough. It was instead focus.

The Huskies lacked urgency and energy, content to rely on their offense to bail them out against lesser competition. So they ended up beating Colgate by just 14. And Hofstra and William & Mary by single-digits.

With the departure of Hasheem Thabeet, Jeff Adrien and A.J. Price, this is a fairly young team, so to an extent the lack of focus was understandable.

Which is why, with those eight days off, Calhoun decided to grab them by the collars and deliver the message.

"We've definitely just concentrated a lot more," said senior Gavin Edwards, who came off the bench for the first time this season and offered up his best night -- 15 points, nine rebounds and three of the team's 13 blocked shots.

Spying Edwards' stuffed stat line, Calhoun joked, "Fortunately for Gavin he did well coming off the bench. You can guess what that means."

"It doesn't matter to me," Edwards laughed. "I've been coming off the bench my whole career."

Edwards wasn't the only guy who received Calhoun's message, though.

The versatile Robinson, who Calhoun thought was settling for easy jump shots, displayed the sort of game that makes him so attractive to NBA scouts. He hit leaners and floaters, drove to the rim and surrounded the rim for rebounds and tips.

Renewed and reinvigorated after problems that forced him out of basketball for a semester last year, Robinson finished with 14 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, three blocks and three steals.

"I wanted to get the team going," Robinson said. "I don't want them to be scared. It's OK to make mistakes as long as you're working. I thought we needed a changing point for the season."

Or maybe just less practice.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.