Friday, February 01, 2008


February 2, 2008

Over the last half-dozen years or so, no game on the schedule has seemed to mean as much as one between Pittsburgh and Connecticut in the Big East conference. They have played some classic thrillers in the regular season or in Madison Square Garden in the Big East Tournament. Jim Calhoun seems to use the Pitt game as a measuring stick for the toughness of his ballclub. The Panthers seem to relish the role of battling the Big East stalwart program of the last decade or so, hoping to achieve continued success to some day take that crown.

This year promises to be no different as both teams enter the contest at 5-3 in Big East conference play. Connecticut has rebounded from a surprising home loss to Providence to win four games in a row. One of those games was a non-conference road match-up at Indiana, who was ranked in the top 10 in the country. Their latest win was a thrilled over Louisville on Monday night. Making those wins even more impressive was they did them without the services of leading scorer Jerome Dyson and 6th man Doug Wiggins as both had been suspended for possession of alcohol on the UConn campus while under 21.

Dyson has now been suspended for a mandatory 30 days by the University because he failed a drug test in the aftermath of the incident, a process that has caused an additional rift between coach Calhoun and his athletic director. Wiggins passed his drug test. Wiggins had failed one earlier this year which resulted in him being away from the program for 30 days, so another failed test would have meant a suspension for the remainder of the season. A decision has not been made public, but Wiggins did return to practice yesterday and there are signs he will be available this Saturday, but that has yet to be confirmed.

In the absence of Wiggins and Dyson, AJ Price has continued to strenghten his role of on-court leader of the Huskies and continues to mature into one of the finest players in the conference. Added responsibility in the offense for Stanley Robinson has allowed him to find comfort and produce a pair of double-doubles in the impressive wins. Jeff Adrien continues to supply energy and emotion with his trademark toughness inside and Hasheem Thabeet continues to evolve as an offensive threat while changing everyone's game plan on the offensive side.

Pittsburgh is not going to feel sorry for the Huskies being short-handed. The Panthers have already lost Mike Cook and Austin Wallace for the season and Levance Fields has missed the last nine and a half games with a broken foot. The Panthers have held things together to post a 5-3 record in conference play which includes a win against Georgetown. They have also won on the road, beating South Florida and St. John's, but a few cracks in their usual toughness and effort have been detected recently as they lost at Cincinnati and were shocked at home agianst Rutgers. In both games, freshman DeJuan Blair found himself in some foul trouble and the consistent characteristics that have personified Pitt over the years were missing. With four freshmen in the eight-man rotation that has been diced because of the injuries, the up and down nature is to be expected.

There are some match-ups that Pittsburgh will have trouble with right from the get-go, but they match-up pretty well with UConn. Sam Young and Gilbert Brown give the Panthers an extremely athletic duo at the forward position and Keith Benjamin and Ronald Ramon are a pair of steady senior gaurds who have been through it all before. An area that sticks out right away is the height differential between the 7'3 Thabeet and the 6'7 Blair in the middle. However, knowing Pitt was able to overcome that match-up while beating Georgetown gives Pitt confidence heading to the XL Center in this one.

The way the Big East has gone, once a team seems to be gaining some momentum, the BE(ast) pulls them back to the pack. Connecticut really has a chance to solidify themselves as a clear challenger in the conference with a win this weekend. However, you wonder if the Dyson/Wiggins situation, now that the unknown is settled, will allow the team to relax just a bit. While they played with an edge in their last two games, can they keep that edge sharpended for a third?

Pittsburgh will likely come in with a nothing to lose attitude, but with the confidence that they have knocked off Georgetown in a similar situation, although it was at home. The way the conference is...I wouldn't be surprised to see UConn get pulled back into the pack.

NBE Blogger Prediction: Pittsburgh 68 Connecticut 66



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