It's A Big One
Feb. 16, 2009
(AP) - With Connecticut entering its third week as the nation's top-ranked team, the accolades keep coming in for massive Huskies center Hasheem Thabeet.
DeJuan Blair and Pittsburgh were also ranked No. 1 for a week, and they feel they are the Big East team that is the best in the nation.
The fourth-ranked Panthers will finally get their first look at Connecticut in Monday night's much-anticipated meeting of powerhouses in Hartford, as the Huskies look for their 14th straight win on the day one of their top scorers is scheduled for season-ending knee surgery.
Connecticut's dominating rise to the top of the rankings was tempered last week by the loss of guard Jerome Dyson, the team's third-leading scorer with 13.2 points per game. Dyson will have surgery Monday to repair a torn meniscus.
The injury only served to shift the spotlight even more on Thabeet, the 7-foot-3 junior from Tanzania who set new career highs with 25 points and 20 rebounds in a 62-54 win at Seton Hall on Saturday.
But perhaps his most important contributions were his nine blocked shots, as he ramped up his overpowering interior defense for the first-place Huskies (24-1, 12-1).
"The difference tonight was there were nine players and Hasheem," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "Every once in a while you see that."
One of the country's most improved players, Thabeet ranks second nationally in both field goal percentage (65.4) and blocked shots (4.4 per game).
"Hasheem Thabeet is a great player who's really improved tremendously as his career has gone on," Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said. "He started against us here his freshmen year and that UConn team didn't even make the NCAA tournament.
"Now, two years later they're the number-one ranked team in the country riding him very hard. That shows great improvement."
Dixon will likely try to counter Thabeet with the bulkier Blair, even though he's giving up eight inches in what should be a physical inside battle. Connecticut hasn't been outrebounded all season, but Blair ranks fifth nationally with 12.3 rebounds per game, including 5.8 on the offensive end - easily the most in the country.
Blair scored 17 points in the Panthers' fifth straight win, 85-69 over Cincinnati on Saturday. The sophomore's 7-of-9 shooting led Pitt (23-2, 10-2) to a season-best 67.4 percent mark from the field.
"We can run with the best of them when we're playing like this," Blair said.
While Blair averages a double-double and Sam Young leads the team with 17.9 points per game, Levance Fields' numbers have been arguably even more impressive lately.
The Pitt point guard is averaging 12.0 points, 12.3 assists and 1.5 turnovers in his last four games, and he leads the nation for the season with a 4.15 assist-to-turnover ratio.
"Everything we do on offense flows through him and he's really just leading us perfectly right now," Dixon said of Fields.
Pitt and Connecticut also met at Hartford's XL Center last season, with the Huskies earning a 60-53 win on Feb. 2, 2008, while Pitt was without an injured Fields.
The Panthers have won four of their last five games against top-5 opponents, but the lone loss was an 80-76 defeat at then-No. 1 Connecticut on Jan. 31, 2006. They're 0-13 all-time against top-ranked teams.
"We have to go beat a very good team on the road, which is always a challenge," Dixon said. "We're number one in the RPI right now though, so obviously we've been doing something right all year."
So, of course, has Connecticut, with the strong senior duo of forward Jeff Adrien and guard A.J. Price effectively complementing Thabeet.
Calhoun is hoping senior Craig Austrie and freshman Kemba Walker can help fill Dyson's void, but Austrie struggled in the starting lineup against Seton Hall, scoring six points on 2-of-10 shooting.
The teams also meet in Pittsburgh to close the regular season on March 7.