Saturday, March 07, 2009


March 7, 2009

By Zach Smart & NBE Staff

After suffering from 'Blaired' vision and virtually disappearing during the Huskies" 76-68 loss at the XL Center in Hartford back on Feb. 16, Hasheem Thabeet and UConn will look to exact revenge on Pittsburgh.

Top-ranked UConn closes out the regular season in dramatic fashion, heading to the Peterson Events Center to try to avenge an earlier loss against Pittsburgh (27-3, 14-3). The stakes are raised, significantly as the game has regular season title implications. The prospect of grabbing a No.1 seed in the NCAA tournament could present itself to the winner, regardless of what happens next week in the 2009 Big East Tournament.

UConn will have to get an efficient account of itself, meaning 6-9 forward Stanley Robinson will have to play the hungry, possessed way he played against Marquette. Hasheem Thabeet will need to provide a presence on the blocks and not turn in another Houdini-like performance he did at Hartford.

The Huskies must have the fortitude and composure to withstand any late game run Pitt reels off. That's a litmus test in its own. The fans can blow the roof off after a wild, pulsating Pitt run and disrupt the flow of the visitor's comeback.

Pitt owns a gaudy 18-0 record at the PEC this season and have won 20 straight at home dating back to last season.


The Huskies will need to be able to respond to any long range shot by Levance Fields, who buried two crucial threes down Craig Austrie and Kemba Walker's throats that turned out to be real daggers.

Fields scored 10 crucial points in three crucial minutes, helping the Panthers pad their lead and run off with a victory that catapulted them to No.1 in the country.

Fields, however, is questionable for this game after a hard fall on the Panthers’ previous game against Marquette and is reportedly very sore as a bruised tailbone leaves his status in doubt.

Last year, Pitt and UConn met in Connecticut with the Panthers missing Fields and UConn without Jerome Dyson then as well. AJ price hit the key baskets down the stretch, similar to what Fields did in their earlier match-up this season, to pull out the win. The Panthers were 8-4 (7-4 in the Big East) last year without Fields.

The Huskies will need to put the clamps on DeJuan Blair, who bulldozed his way to 22 points and 23 rebounds and destroyed Thabeet in virtually every aspect of the game on the 16th. Blair, the 6-foot-7 homegrown product and Player of the Year candidate, backed Thabeet down and penetrated the teeth of the UConn frontline at will. Both Blair and Sam Young, he of the trademark shot fake, were a two-man wrecking crew.

Young is averaging 18.4 points and 6.0 boards. He's shooting the rock at a 50 percent clip.

Back in mid-February, he started off sizzling and never relented. He hit jumpers and got free for alley-oops, cooking UConn to the recipe of 25 points on an efficient 8-of-13 shooting.

Pitt won the battle on the boards, 43-36 in a game that left the Big East leaders in a black-and-blue battered condition the following morning. With muscle-bound mammoths like Jeff Adrien and Blair going after it and employing an ultra-physical brand of ball, it was what one would expect.

Jim Calhoun, at the helm at UConn for 23 years, was even overwhelmed by the aggression of the game and the nature in which it was called. Calhoun said he hasn't seen a game like that in 15 years.

"If the game's going to be called like that, let us know before hand," he said, venting his frustration at referee Mike Kitts, whose suspect call on Hasheem Thabeet with 11:20 remaining resulted in Thabeet's fourth foul.

Calhoun also said his peace following the game and look for the Hall of Fame coach to be working the officials early and often on Saturday. It was in Pittsburgh back when their bruisers like Chevon Troutman and company would test the mettle of Emeka Okafor and Calhoun got T’d up during the opening tip-off, it could happen early tomorrow as well.

If the cajoling of the officials leads to a few fouls on Blair, then coach Calhoun has done his job and it will be up to his players to finish their job.

Pulling off a win in such a hostile environment will be trying for the Huskies, a real test of their manhood and hunger. Calhoun has called them out for not wanting it bad enough twice this season, in losses against Georgetown and Pittsburgh.

In order for the Huskies to win the battle in the backcourt, A.J. Price and Craig Austrie can't shoot a paltry 8-for-25 the way they did at the XL Center. With Jerome Dyson out, Kemba Walker has filled some of the scoring void. He's gone to the basket more. Adrien, who was sublime in his 25-point, 11-for-15 explosion against Notre Dame, has also helped cushion the loss.

Thabeet, who Blair virtually flipped over in the first half, knows he will be the center of attention. He isn't exactly embracing the role of the player who all eyes will be pasted on.

"It is not about Hasheem against Pittsburgh," he told the Hartford Courant Thursday. "It's about UConn basketball."

Calhoun knows his 7-foot-3 beanstalk will need to make up for the lost time last game.

"He now is going to be thrust into a pivotal position as the pivotal guy on our team. And if he were to be deserving of player of the year or All-American, or all those kind of things, well ... "

He's got to avoid slipping into the body of a 5-foot-10 walk-on. He's got to avoid getting pummeled on the glass, getting backed down to the basket, and suffering from 'Blaired' vision this time around.

Here are some pregame stories and previews on the game:

Game Night: #4 Pittsburgh vs. #1 Connecticut (CollegeHoopsnet.com)
Blair, #3 Panthers Read for Another ‘Celebrity Death Match’ (Washington Observer)
The Moment is Now for AJ Price and Connecticut Basketball (Chicago Tribune)
UConn Men Play for Big East Title (Hartford Courant)
UConn-Pittsburgh Saturday (Hartford Courant)
Blair, Pitt Try to Dislodge UConn Again (AP)
Thabeet in Spotlight Against Pittsburgh (Hartford Courant)
Panthers Await UConn, Another Shot at No. 1 (Post-Gazette)
Clash May Decide Big East Player of the Year (Norwich Bulletin)
For UConn, Formula is Easy, the Game is the Hard Part (Norwich Bulletin)
Clash of the Titans (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
UConn Men’s Gameday (Connecticut Post)
Officiating Talk a Backdrop to UConn-Pitt Match-up (Post-Gazette)
Pitt, UConn No. 1 Rivalry and Just the Ticket for Fans (Post-Gazette)

NBE Blogger Prediction:

Pittsburgh 71
Connecticut 66

The prospect of Pittsburgh playing without Levance Fields definitely worries me as the Panthers would be very vulnerable to aggressive defensive pressure in the backcourt with some inexperienced ball-handlers. However, the atmosphere and energy of senior day has carried many a team to a special win...



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