BELLY OF THE BE-AST: BIG FELLA EDITION
February 20, 2009
by Ray Mernagh
The most dominating player in the Big East scored 22 points and grabbed 23 rebounds Monday night. It might come as a shock to all the talking heads, and Jim Calhoun, but it wasn’t Hasheem Thabeet. It was DeJuan Blair. Or, if you like, Big Fella (it’s what we call him ’round here).
All Blair does is kill his man, no matter who that highly-regarded guy might be. Every single freaking time. Hibbert, Harangody, Onuaku, Jackson, Thabeet etc etc etc. It’s not a shock around here anymore and it shouldn't be anywhere else in the country either. In fact, Joe Bendel and I talk about it once a week on his radio show. Every Wednesday at 4:25 our weekly hoops conversation inevitably turns to “can anyone stop Blair?” and, “why are people still surprised when this kid dominates others?”
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Mick Cronin knows all about it. The Cincinnati coach called Blair — plus Sam Young and Levance Fields — the best players at their positions in the Big East last Saturday afternoon, right after the Panther trio helped dismantle his game Bearcats squad 85-69. He also said that UNC, Pitt, and UConn were his three favorites to win the NCAA title in March.
A lot has been made about how much the 7-3 Thabeet has improved in the last year, and rightfully so. But maybe, if you really think about it, a little too much? Several coaches have jumped on the hype train, including Boeheim at Syracuse and Calhoun himself, in declaring Thabeet the most dominating, game-changing post-presence since some uber-combination of Bill Russell, Wilt, Kareem and Shaq.
The truth is that Thabeet changes games when the players on the other side allow him to. When they submit to him, witness Samardo Samuels earlier this season. Sam Young went right at him, drawing Thabeet’s 3rd foul on a dunk attempt that had Thabeet’s eyes bugging out of his head even as Young attempted it. Blair kept him glued to the ground for most of the evening with an array of solid post moves that all had one thing in common — a combination of quickness and power unmatched by anyone in the college game this side of Blake Griffin. Blair went right through him.
On this night, Thabeet was the uncomfortable one, the one unsure of not only what to do but how to do it. He didn’t respond so well to the challenge of the 6-6 Young flying at him, or the 6-7 Blair controlling him like an x-box joystick. Young and Blair are grown men that treated Thabeet like a teenager. Yes, the fourth foul was bogus, but did anything about Thabeet's posture suggest he was suddenly going to exert his will on this game? Bogus fouls happen all the time in this league, last night it was just Thabeet's turn.
Maybe that will change on March 7th when UConn comes to Pitt. Maybe Thabeet, and the rest of the Huskies, will be more ready for the physical challenge and skill that Blair, Young, and Fields bring to the battle than they were last night. Maybe the 7-3 giant will stay out of foul trouble. And don't let Jim Calhoun's post-game posturing fool you for even one minute. He knows the refs didn't cost him this game. His comments are made with the hope that they'll help his team get a quick whistle -- preferrably on Blair -- come March 7th. In fact, he might be hoping his comments will help him on the first Monday night in April, the night of the National Championship. Because honestly, like Cronin, I strongly suspect both teams are more than capable of being there. Calhoun's strategy is straight out of the Pat Riley playbook circa 1989.
Before any of that happens though, Thabeet will face — and maybe put up big numbers — against South Florida, Marquette and Notre Dame. If and when that happens, let’s just try to have a little perspective about it. Let’s wait to see what he does against Pitt in the rematch. See if he’s any more prepared for the challenge.
One things for sure — Big Fella will be ready.
Just like always.
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