Monday, February 16, 2009


February 16, 2009

Super powers collide on Big Monday as Pittsburgh travels to Hartford (CT) to take on Connecticut in a battle of a pair of teams ranked nationally in the top five. Connecticut, riding an impressive 13-game winning streak, puts that streak on the line in one of two match-ups with the Panthers down the stretch. These two teams will square off once again to close the regular season on March 7th in Pittsburgh.

The Huskies were a preseason favorite to win the Big East and be a leading challenger for a national championship. Even some roster upheaval has yet to slow them down as they are sitting at 24-1 and ranked No. 1 in the nation. Prior to the start of the season, freshman wing Nate Miles was expelled from the school. Freshman recruit Ater Majok was not cleared academically by the NCAA and will not be eligible to play for UConn until December of 2009. Sophomore JUCO transfer Charles Okwandu has been declared academically ineligible and is not going to play the rest of the season. Even with those expected contributors not suiting up, UConn has rolled along to a 12-1 mark on conference play and has not lost a game in 2009 as their last lost came on December 29th in the Big East opener against Georgetown.


However, their latest personnel matter might deliver a weakening blow to their chances of a Big East title and a run to a national championship. Starting shooting guard Jerome Dyson was injured in the early minutes of the Huskies 63-49 win over Syracuse last Wednesday. Dyson suffered a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee and is scheduled to have surgery on Monday, a procedure that could end his season. Dyson had been averaging 13 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and led the team with nearly 2 steals a game. Dyson is often their emotional leader and, even though his all-out play could sometimes be out of control, his aggressive nature would inspire teammates. He was also a strong perimeter defender, the type of player that would ‘hold you together’ according to UConn Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun.

Last season, without Dyson, UConn beat Pitt in Hartford, 60-53 as the Huskies outscored the Panthers 9-2 in the last 2 ½ minutes of the game. Pitt led much of the second half, but AJ Price hit the big shots down the stretch, finishing with a game-high 21 points.

Pitt did not have two very key players in last year’s game that they have now: Levance Fields and Jermaine Dixon. Fields was out with a broken foot and Dixon was playing at Tallahassee Community College.

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon has termed Fields play of late as ‘unbelievable’ as the senior point guard is averaging 13.3 points and 8.3 assists in the last seven Big East contests, reaching double figures in scoring each time. What has been the most incredible part of Fields’ play, in those seven Big East games, he has turned it over just 14 times. Even more impressive, in his last four games, Fields has 49 assists and just 6 turnovers.

Dixon has quickly developed into one of the best on-the-ball defensive stoppers in the conference, something Pitt really has lacked the last two seasons. On Saturday Dixon had the assignment of silencing Deonta Vaughn and did so, holding UC’s leading scored to just three of seven shooting and nine points in 37 minutes. He has also made Jonny Flynn disappear for about 36 minutes of their earlier contest with Syracuse and, because of the Dyson injury, Dixon will draw the assignment of guarding AJ Price. Dixon is athletic and taller than any guard Pitt has recently had. Coming off the bench behind Dixon is sophomore Brad Wanamaker (averages 7.8 points in Big East play) and the defense does not fall off very much. Gilbert Brown is another wing sub and he, too is a top defender. Brown was a starter last season when Pitt met UConn, this time he is the 7th man in the rotation, showing that Pitt is a deeper club this year.

In the match-up last season, Sam Young scored 18 points and DeJuan Blair had a double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds. Hasheem Thabeet, who is coming off a 25-point, 20-rebound and 9-block performance in a 62-54 win over Seton Hall on Saturday, had just six points, seven rebounds and five blocks in the meeting. However, he was clearly on the Panthers minds as Young and Blair combined to shoot 12-35 from the floor with many of the misses coming inside.

Thabeet also had 8 points, 16 rebounds and 7 blocks in last week’s win over Syracuse and he has anchored a defense for the Huskies that has sparkled of late, allowing just 55 points a game in their last seven contests, with nobody scoring more than 61. Even more impressive is the fact that UConn has allowed just 0.80 points per possession in that timeframe, which would easily lead the nation if it was done for the entire season.

In a true match-up of offense versus defense, it is Pittsburgh that enters the game as the nation’s most efficient offense, averaging 1.243 points a possession according to www.kenpom.com and has done so against the nation’s 19th toughest schedule (UConn’s schedule is rated as the 29th toughest). Usually defense wins out, but will the absence of Dyson knock the UConn defense down a peg or two?

Connecticut is listed as a 3 ½-point favorite. If there is a team in the Big East that is not intimidated by UConn it is Pitt. While the duo of Thabeet and Jeff Adrien will win their share of battles on the boards and swat some shots, Pitt will keep coming at them. The biggest fear for Pitt is a too-hyped DeJuan Blair and that could lead to him finding himself in some foul trouble. If that happens, Pitt will be in trouble because they are not nearly the same rebounding team with him off the floor. One good thing for Pitt, though, is Thabeet is not always that active setting screens and forcing Blair to hedge and show on the perimeter, a spot where he tends to pick up some cheap fouls. With that being the case, I think Pitt pulls this one out in a meat-grinder type of game. The Husky team has been through a lot the last 11 months, and it might just catch up to them a little in this game.

NBE Blogger Prediction:

Pittsburgh 65
Connecticut 61

Here are some pregame stories and previews linked from around the internet:

Blair to Test Improved Thabeet (Hartford Courant)
Pitt Hopes to Knock Off No. 1 (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
Clash With Pitt Could Decide Big East (Norwich Bulletin)
High Stakes for Huskies With Pitt in Town (Connecticut Post)
UConn Men’s Gameday (Connecticut Post)
Blair, Pitt ready to Take on UConn (FoxSports.com via Post-Gazette)
Pitt Shifts Focus to UConn (Beaver County Times)
Dyson Cautious About Return (Waterbury Rep-Am)



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