In my actual bracket, I picked 11 of 16 teams correct to advance past the first weekend. In my predictions, however, I was spot on going 16 for 16. With eight games on the table over the next two days, I’ll try to give some insight on what I see going down from here on out. First up are the Thursday games followed by Friday’s action, broken down tomorrow.
1. Connecticut vs. 5. Purdue
Just as it would be for any team playing Connecticut, Purdue has had a much harder path to get to the Sweet 16. Close wins over Northern Iowa and Washington puts the Boilermakers in a potition to take on the Huskies of Conecticut, who defeated Chatanooga and Texas A&M by an average of 41 points, and have looked the best out of any team in the nation thus far. I like Connecticut in this game (and every game) because of the pace the Huskies will play at. They are much faster than Purdue but have the presence inside with Thabeet and Adrien to slow it down if they have to. Defensively, I like for another stifling performance from the Huskies that will shut down Purdue’s star in the making, JuJuan Johnson. A.J. Price should have a good game offensively as he has done in the tournament up to this point and I think UConn rolls in this one. Connecticut 77, Purdue 67
1. Pittsburgh vs. 4. Xavier
A battle of the bigs awaits us in the East semi-finals, with DeJuan Blair and B.J. Raymond. While Raymond is just 6 feet 6 inches, he plays much bigger and will cause problems for the Pitt defense who has struggled all tournament on the defensive end. Key to the Panthers success will be Sam Young, who carried the team in the first two rounds, averaging 23 points. Look for Levance Fields to have a great game against a bigger but slower back court in Xavier. This one will go down to the wire, but in the end Pitt’s experience and talent will get it done as the Big East gets their second team into the Elite Eight. Pittsburgh 82, Xavier 78
2. Memphis vs. 3. Missouri
Memphis probably got rid of their overrated label when they defeated Maryland 89-70 in the second round, and you can bet they will get rid of it if they can knock off Missouri tonight. Tyreke Evans is establishing himself as an early candidate for Most Outstanding Player of the tournament and Roburt Sallie, who averaged 5.7 points per game in the regular season, has 48 points in two tournament games to spark the Tigers of Memphis. The other Tigers, from Missouri, will look to get Demarre Carroll and Leo Lyons involved and hope that the Mizzou guards can do just enough to get by against a very tough Memphis team. In the end, Memphis takes this one by a hair. Memphis 72, Missouri 70
2. Duke vs. 3. Villanova
In what looks to be the most exciting game of the day, the red-hot Wildcats will look to shoot their way past the defensive-minded Blue Devils. Villanova looked terrible in their first round win over American but more than made up for it in their crushing win over UCLA. Everyone got involved with six players in double figures, and when that happens they are tough to beat. Duke will counter with a poised attack of Jon Scheyer, Gerald Henderson, and Kyle Singler. The difference will come down to whether or not Villanova can find their three-point shot, something they have yet to do in the tournament. I have them in the Final Four so I have to stick with them: Villanova takes this one. Villanova 85, Duke 79
For the first six categories, 17 of the last 19 national champs have fallen under ALL SIX prerequisites.
1. Play in a power conference
Obviously the Huskies fall under this category, and not only do they play in the Big East, but it’s the same league that brought a record three teams as one seeds to the tournament and has a record five teams in the Sweet 16.
If Notre Dame and Georgetown had met expectations, this league could have been in the argument for best conference of all time.
Still, UConn has faced the best of the best this year and despite two losses to Pittsburgh, the Huskies beat Louisville on the road by 17 and have wins over Syracuse and Marquette and Villanova.
Playing in the Big East has prepped them for any challenges they may face against other teams. This category also takes Gonzaga, Memphis, and Xavier out of the running for winning it all.
2. Make the tournament the prior year
Once again, UConn meets the requirement as they made the tournament as a five seed last year. Yes, they lost to San Diego State in the first round, but they were a much younger and much less mature team then.
I remember watching them at an ESPN Zone last year and they just didn’t seem to have the swagger that they sport this year. It is obvious they are much more comfortable this year, having more experience and all.
3. Have a coach with at least five visits to the NCAA Tournament
Hmm, will 20 visits do? Jim Calhoun, who picked up his 800th win this year, has been to the big dance 20 times and has won the whole thing twice. He has been in just about every big game situation that you can think of.
His record of 801-339 is unbelievable and, heck, he took Northeastern to five dances! Aside from maybe the NFL, I can’t think of another sport where a head coach is as valuable, and Calhoun does such a great job at it.
Not only does he bring in talent, but he uses it to the best of his ability and it turn creates national champions. Definitely book UConn in on this category.
4. Average 77 or more points per game in the regular season
“Defense wins championships” might be the cliche, but when you get down to the Elite Eight and Final Four, everyone can play defense. What wins you the championship is your ability to score and the Huskies can do that.
Known for their tight defense, UConn has scored 103 and 92 points in each of their games and shot 52 percent and 58 percent from the field in their victories.
While the competition was not very deep, they have easily fared the best out of all the 1 seeds and unlike the other top seeds, they haven’t had a close game. They average 78.5 points on the season and while this is barely over the clip, that’s all you need to be.
5. Win your games by a +10 margin in the regular season
This is the part where defense comes into play and the Huskies pass the test again, outscoring their opponents by 13.5 points.
Defensively, the Huskies have arguably the best defender in Hasheem Thabeet and great on the ball defenders in A.J. Price and the unheralded Jeff Adrien.
UConn played a great regular season, only being within ten points 14 times, with four of those being losses. While still having the scoring margin, UConn is great at closing out games when they are close (save the Big East Tournament).
6. Be seeded 1-4 in the NCAA Tournament
Clearly UConn has it here and, unlike last year, the one seed has given them some confidence that all one seeds should have.
Sure, having it is like having a bulls-eye on the front of your team’s uniform as everyone wants to take you down, but it is definitely an intimidation factor and gives the Huskies a little extra swagger in their step.
The next three categories are based off of my own research that I wrote on a few weeks ago. I’ll leave the link after the intro, but basically I went back and looked at the last 10 tournament winners (opposed to the last 19 in categories 1-6) and found individual stats that make winners. Here they are.
7. A point guard that, when his points and assists are combined, total at least 17, and a free throw percentage better than 70 percent. If free throw percentage is under 70 percent, points + assists must equal at least 20.
A.J. Price fits the bill in this category as his points and assists add up to 17.9 and he just gets over the free throw mark. But more importantly than stats, Price is “that point guard” that you want to have in the tournament.
Being a senior is huge (just ask Marquette) for team spirit and having a sense of direction on the court.
Price is putting up Dwyane Wade-like numbers in the tournament thus far, posting 23.5 points, 5.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals. Once again, the competition has been weak but Price has dominated.
He will be the key on offense and has done an excellent job up to this point. Once again, UConn puts in another category.
8. A forward/center that, when his points and rebounds are combined, total at least 17, and has a field goal percentage better than 52 percent.
An easy one here for the Huskies as they actually have two players that fall under this range in Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien. Thabeet quietly puts up 14 points a game while shooting 65 percent from the field.
Not so quiet are his 13 rebounds and 4.4 blocks per game that absolutely anchor the UConn defense and make it what it is. The non-stat that everyone talks about is his ability to alter shots and make the paint a place no one wants to come into when playing the Huskies.
His counterpart in the front court is Jeff Adrien who, if he played on most other teams in the nation, would be appreciated so much more. He averages 14 points and ten rebounds per game and shoots 60 percent from the field and works harder in the paint than anybody I have seen play this year.
The front court will be so important for UConn the rest of the way in the tournament, both on offense drawing defenders, and on defense in not allowing points in the paint.
9. Have a starting lineup with an average of at least a junior, OR have two of the best three players on the team be underclassmen.
The last qualification for a tournament champion is also the last one that UConn falls under. They are tied with North Carolina, Villanova, and Pittsburgh for the oldest starting lineup and this experience is something that will carry them.
They are not relying on young, skilled players (other than Kemba Walker), but rather experience and chemistry that they built up from time playing with each other. Also, the determination that seniors Jeff Adrien and A.J. Price will have with the “win or go home” mentality will push this team to greatness.
Breaking It All Down
When I look at this Connecticut team and how they have progressed all year, even when they lost Dyson, I see a team that can go all the way on skill, hustle, smarts, and coaching. Sure, the top dogs are still out there and this is one of the best Sweet 16’s that the tournament has ever seen.
However, with Price leading the way along with excellent contributions from Craig Austrie and Kemba Walker in Dyson’s absence, this team is starting to click. Adrien and Thabeet will clearly be key in their success, and when it’s all said and done, all these things will equate to a national championship in Connecticut.
The NCAA tournament tips off Thursday with 16 games and another 16 on Friday. Yesterday we looked at the East and Midwest Regionals and today will be the West and South regionals.
1. Connecticut vs. 16. Chattanooga
My pick to win it all, the Connecticut Huskies, start the tournament off versus the tourney underdogs and will have no trouble. Expect the Huskies to run out in this one and get a big lead early. The Mocs were not supposed to be here and their tournament run will be short lived. Connecticut 82, Chattanooga 59
8. BYU vs. 9. Texas A&M
Due to the restrictions of BYU playing on Sunday, the selection committee had no choice but to put them in the 8 spot against the same team they played last year. Texas A&M got the best of the Cougars in round 1 last year as the 8 seed, but I see a veteran group of players in BYU getting their revenge this year, in a tight game no less. BYU 68, Texas A&M 64
5. Purdue vs. 12. Northern Iowa
Despite this matchup being the 5/12 matchup that always seems to provide upsets, Purdue will not falter here in this one. They are starting to hit their jump shots which could they make them dangerous in the tournament, and while their young age might catch up to them later on in the tourney, it won’t here. Purdue 74, Northern Iowa 62
4. Washington vs. 13. Mississippi St.
A very interesting matchup here, as the improbably SEC champions go up against a very little known team in Washington. It’d be nice to see the Bulldogs continue their streak, but I think Washington is very underrated. They play on the West Coast late at night so no one watches them play, but watch out for John Brockman. He could take this regional by storm accompanied by a very talented back court. I think Washington wins big in this one. Washington 78, MSU 66
6. Marquette vs. 11. Utah State
There will be a big write-up on this tomorrow, but biases aside, Marquette wins this game. Utah State is just way too slow of a team to keep up with a proven team of Marquette. Utah State won 30 games this year and defeated Utah at home on a last second shot, but Marquette’s talent level and speed will be better than any team they have faced this year, and they will get outrun from the get-go. Marquette 71, Utah State 64
3. Missouri vs. 14. Cornell
I had the (dis)pleasure of watching Cornell go up against the Lopez twins last year vs. Stanford in Anaheim, and this year will be the same result as they face Demarre Carroll and Leo Lyons. Missouri is a tough team to figure out, as they play outstanding at home but really struggle on the road. But just speaking on this game, it wouldn’t matter if this game was played at Cornell, Mizzou takes it easy. Missouri 68, Cornell 53
7. California vs. 10. Maryland
This was the hardest game of any first round match-up for me to figure out, so pardon me if I don’t have a lot to say on it. Both teams are semi-backing into the tournament and not playing their best basketball, and while Greives Vasquez is outstanding, I think Cal’s best is better than Maryland’s best, and teams tend to bring their best to the tourney. Give me Cal in a close one. California 72, Maryland 70
2. Memphis vs. 15. Cal St. Northridge
I laugh at a lot of analysts and my friends that say how overrated they believe Memphis is…and then have them beating UConn in the West final. I like to believe that this is the same “C-USA” that Memphis played in last year and dominated, only to lose in overtime to Kansas. Different team? Sure. But what it shows is that the talent is there and I expect a big run out of Memphis in the tournament…and in this game. Memphis 67, CSN 54
Who Wins the West Regional and Why? Marquette. Alright fine, just kidding. But this is a very interesting bracket that could go a bunch of ways. On one hand, you have my favorite team the UConn Huskies who struggled after Dyson went down but have that look and feel of a championship squad. Then you have Memphis who are waiting to show the world what they are made of. Missouri fits the bill of a lot of requirements for a national champ in terms of scoring differential and so on. Washington flies under the radar better than any team in the nation and Purdue has a ton of young potential. Marquette has three excellent scorers in Matthews, McNeal, and Hayward and may make a push with a nice draw (Mizzou, Memphis). In the end, I’m taking the Huskies. They are my national champions so I hope that they win the regional and make it to the Final Four. After round one I will do a write-up on why they will cut down the nets in Detroit, but to give you the short version, they have everything. Thabeet is a guy that will carry a team on his shoulders with his inside D. They have A.J. Price, the senior guard that has been through everything and is capable of going nuts on any given night. Stanley Robinson has been excellent as of late and there might not be a better third option in the nation than Jeff Adrien. Add Jim Calhoun to the mix and you have a team that can’t lose. Yes, Thabeet has the occasional off game, but I think he will buckle down and hold his own for 6 games. Just wait for it…
Who is the Biggest Sleeper? They might not be sleepers to win the regional, but Marquette got a fantastic draw in the brackets with potential 2nd round and Sweet 16 matchups against Missouri and Memphis. They lost 5 of thier last 6 games, but let’s not forget those 5 losses were against 3 #1 seeds and 2 #3 seeds. They led in the second half in 4 of those 5 losses, so it will be a matter of closing for the Golden Eagles. If they can keep McNeal and Matthews rested and not sucking air with 6 minutes left in the game, the Elite 8 isn’t out of the question for the Warriors.
1. North Carolina vs. 16. Radford
I’m sure that Radford is thankful that Ty Lawson is doubtful for Thursday’s matchup, but that’s about all they are thankful for getting matched up with the Tar Heels. Psycho T’s last chance for a national championship starts here, and North Carolina always steamrolls their Round 1 opponent, Lawson or not. North Carolina 92, Radford 61
8. LSU vs. 9. Butler
The Butler Bulldogs were probably looking at a 6/7 seed before they got upset by Cleveland State in their conference championship game, so here they are in the 9 spot playing a very quiet LSU team led by Marcus Thornton. This is a tough matchup to guage because Butler can play as well as most teams in the nation but don’t always show it, and LSU relies a lot on athleticism. I’ll take a more proven Butler team in this one. Butler 63, LSU 60
5. Illinois vs. 12. Western Kentucky
This is the best 5/12 matchup that I can find having a chance for an upset due to the injury to Illinois guard Chester Frazier. I haven’t been high on Illinois all year and Western Kentucky loves to spread the court, getting everyone involved and match up very well with Illinois. Western Kentucky 65, Illinois 62
4. Gonzaga vs. 13. Akron
Gonzaga is one of my sleepers in this bracket, especially if Ty Lawson’s big toe keeps acting up and he has to miss any time. I’ve seen Akron a few times on tape and they don’t look like world beaters and I think is Gonzaga is poised for something big this year. Don’t forget they led the nation in scoring margin this year, an important stat come tournament time. Gonzaga 74, Akron 60
6. Arizona St. vs. 11. Temple
Shhh…my official sleeper of 2009 that could very well bust on me in the first round. The Temple Owls are one of my favorite teams in the draft, and when I watched Joe Lunardi pick them to make the Sweet 16, I knew it was meant to be. I love what Dionte Christmas is about and think he is this year’s Stephen Curry. Believe me, he’s got the tools and Arizona St. is very overrated. Take the 5.5 points Temple is getting with ease also. Temple 72, Arizona St. 71
3. Syracuse vs. 14. Stephen F. Austin
It’s time for everyone to stop saying that Johnny Flynn or any of the other Orange are going to get tired because of the 6OT game followed by the OT win vs. West Virginia. All that epic game did was boost their confidence through the roof and make them feel like they could play with anyone (except Dionte Christmas). This team could fall as short as the second round or as far as the Final Four. Flynn has it within himself to do so, but either way they roll in round one. Syracuse 84, Stephen F. Austin 72
7. Clemson vs. 10. Michigan
As much as I hate the Big11Ten, and as good as I think Clemson can be, I have to make Michigan in this game. Big Blue has big wins over Duke and UCLA this year and Clemson has been way too inconsistent for my liking. The Tigers’ best is better than the Wolverines’ best showing, but I think Michigan and John Beilein’s squad come out firing in this one, led by Manny Harris. Michigan 73, Clemson 69
2. Oklahoma vs. 15. Morgan St.
Oklahoma is a very interesting team in this year’s tournament. I love what Blake Griffin is about and do not think the Kansas State comparison are fair at all. Willie Warren is an outstanding freshman and when he wants to be, Austin Johnson is tough to stop. The Griffin brothers will lead the troops into battle over Morgan St., but after that they will need to prove that they are more than just a product of the double-double machine. Oklahoma 78, Morgan St. 60
Who Wins the South Regional and Why? In my opinion, the South has the teams with a) the best talent (UNC), b) the best player (Blake Griffin), c) the hottest team (Syracuse), d) the biggest upset special (W Kentucky) and e) the biggest sleeper (Gonzaga) of the tournament. That being said, it will come down to whether or not Ty Lawson is healthy for the Tar Heels. As the Florida State game showed, they are not outstanding without their star point guard and they need him if they want to advance far. Hansbrough and the rest of the senior-laced squad can carry them to the Sweet 16, but they will need a healthy Lawson from there on out or it could be game over. I don’t think Oklahoma has what it takes to win the regional and Syracuse is bound to fade on their crazy hot streak playing the best basketball in the nation, which leaves one other team: the Gonzaga Bulldogs. They have quietly dominated this year and could come out of nowhere and take this regional by surprise.
Who is the Biggest Sleeper? Obviously I am going with Dionte Christmas and the Temple Owls. I can’t tell you enough how good this guy is. I watched him vs. Tennessee earlier this year when he dropped 35 on the Vols and fell in love with him. Bill Raftery was having way too much fun with the “Christmas” puns during the game, but all I saw was a fierce competitor and a solid supporting cast, especially Ryan Brooks and Lavoy Allen. I think they beat the Sun Devils and after that, Syracuse really does not have an answer for Christmas (Devendorf and Rautins don’t play great defense) and you could see an 11 seed jump into the Sweet 16. From there, we all know it’s about staying hot. I’m just saying…
Who Wins the Final Four and Why? All four of these teams know how to turn it on at the right time which is why I chose them to get to Detroit. If Wake Forest wins it, it will be because all that talent has found their groove at the right time, as well as Jeff Teague lighting it up every game. For UConn, it will start with Hasheem Thabeet and what he is able to do in the tournament. We saw that a big man like Greg Oden can get a team to the National Championship, and that Ohio State team was not as good as this UConn team, despite their record being better. A.J. Price will need to run this team and UConn’s big role players will need to step up, and I believe they will. For UNC, it will be Ty Lawson’s health status and whether or not his big toe his healthy. The talent is there but the offense starts and ends with Lawson. For Villanova, much like Wake Forest, they will need to stay hot and keep shooting well from outside as well as Dante Cunningham pacing them from the inside.
In the end, UConn will take the cake due to their outstanding balance and senior point guard leadership. Yes, they lost to Pittsburgh twice this year, but they crushed Louisville and Marquette on the road and beat Syracuse, Villanova, and Gonzaga this year. The ability to beat anyone is there and I believe Jim Calhoun will have these guys ready. It hasn’t been the pick everyone is talking about (everyone is taking Louisville and North Carolina, it seems) but I just get that gut feeling that they will do it this year. Price and Thabeet get it done, Dyson or not.
It’s the greatest time of the year and I believe the second best day in the sports world (behind only the NFC and AFC Championship games), it’s the NCAA First Round that starts in a couple hours. Good luck on your brackets and enjoy the games!
My communications class being canceled this morning has allowed me to do a quick write-up on what will be Marquette’s biggest home game of the year. The Golden Eagles (23-4, 12-2) enter tonight’s contest 1/2 game behind the Connecticut Huskies (25-2, 13-2) in the Big East standings and will look to deny Jim Calhoun his 800th win in his storied career. Marquette is perfect at home at 16-0 while UConn is 9-0 on the road. Something has to give tonight between these two teams and it will be interesting to see whose tempo takes over this contest.
For Connecticut, it starts and ends with 7’3″ center Hasheem Thabeet. He averages 13.4 points and 10.5 rebounds per game to go along with a 64% field goal percentage. Defensively, he is second in the nation in blocks at 4.4 per game. To put that in perspective, Marquette as a team averages 3.3 blocks per game. Thabeet’s presence inside will be key on both ends of the court in an attempt to take advantage of Marquette’s height problems inside. In addition, Thabeet will keep Marquette out of the lane on drives and force them to alter shots, leading to poor percentage takes. But don’t think the Huskies stop with Thabeet. A.J. Price and Jeff Adrien round out UConn’s version of the “Big 3″. Adrien is about as physical of a 6’7″ player as you will find and will provide a very tough matchup for Lazar Hayward on the offensive end. A.J. Price provides excellent senior leadership at the point guard position but will face a tough matchup against Dominic James tonight. 6’9″ Stanley Robinson rounds out UConn’s front court and freshman Kemba Walker has stepped in nicely for the injured Jerome Dyson. UConn’s keys to the game tonight are to play the 2-3 zone better than they have all year. It would absolutely shock me to see them come out in a man-to-man look against a Marquette team that is quicker than them and clearly undersized. Thabeet will have to anchor the middle and stop drives inside, forcing Marquette to beat them with jumpshots. Offensively, Jeff Adrien could fly under the radar and have an excellent game for the Huskies. As has been the case all year when guarding them, Thabeet will be doubled on most possessions, leaving Adrien open on the weakside or Price and Walker open for outside jumpers. Marquette’s guards have the advantage over a slower UConn back court so look for a slowed down half-court offense that starts in the post for UConn. If UConn can find Thabeet and Adrien early, it will force Marquette to double down and change up their defense.
For the Golden Eagles, the key to tonight’s game is Jerel McNeal. No, he won’t guard Thabeet or Adrien but the tempo of the game relies solely on what he does with the ball offensively. McNeal, Marquette’s leader throughout the year, will finally get the national spotlight that he has deserved all year and I look for him to succeed. Hayward, James, and Matthews are all excellent players and should be applauded for how they have each contributed to MU’s success this year, but tonight is McNeal’s time to shine. It is obvious that, unless we traded for DeJuan Blair this morning, guard play will be the key to winning this game. Marquette can beat the UConn guards off the dribble and get into the paint about as much as they want, especially in a 2-3 zone. Unfortunately, that’s the easy part. Waiting for the seniors will be a front court whose average height is 6’10″ as well as one of the best shot blockers in the nation. I want Marquette to be as physical as they can with the front court, Thabeet especially. His gift is his curse and he will, at times, be too aggressive going for blocks and pick up fouls. He is at his best when guards shy away and try to float shots over him (ask Johnny Flynn) and Marquette will have no success doing this. I believe McNeal and Matthews are best suited to do this with their size, and it will be important to get to the lane. Another key to the game will be passing. Out of every game I have seen Marquette play this year, they pass better than their opponent each night. This doesn’t necessarily mean an assist, but the extra pass is always a crisp, line drive to the chest. Tonight, against the zone defense, this could be huge in looking for open jumpers. Sam Young was able to do this against the Huskies last week and even though we didn’t have a Blair to account for like Pitt did, McNeal and Matthews could be the equivalent to this when they drive. Because of this, I look for Lazar Hayward and Dominic James to be open on the perimeter. Lazar is free to shoot but what this will also do for James is make the zone out of position, and no one changes direction better than James. Marquette MUST use their speed tonight because they are faster than UConn. Transition offense will be key as well in keeping UConn out of their zone defense. Defensively, Dwight Burke needs to man up like he did last year against Roy Hibbert. He’s giving up size, strength, and athleticism, but he will need to find that extra boost of energy somewhere because he will be playing more than his average amount of minutes tonight. Using the Luke Harangody or Dante Cunningham approach tonight will not work. Thabeet is 7’3″ and a pure center. He isn’t going out farther than the free throw line and the only possible defenders are Burke, Hayward, maybe Matthews and potentially Hazel tonight. Help-side defense will obviously be important tonight, so look for Jimmy Butler and Lazar Hayward to step up on defense. Their guards do not scare me as long as we close out nicely. Against Pitt, A.J. had way too many open looks against a sluggish Pitt back court. There will not be a letdown from the senior guards tonight in that category, and if Marquette can force early turnovers it could change the whole pace of the game, and definitely the momentum.
I once viewed Connecticut as the most talented team this year, pre-Dyson injury. Thabeet and Adrien have stepped their game up in his absence, but I believe it has left their guards vulnerable on defense. What a perfect set-up for the Golden Eagles. The Bradley Center will be absolutely rocking tonight with an estimated 19,000+ in attendance. I will be waiting in line at 2:00 and already have chills just thinking about the statement the Golden Eagles could make tonight. Marquette must use their speed tonight but will have to work for every bucket against an excellent UConn defense. This game won’t get past the 70′s for either team so every bucket will be important. For weeks on end, I have been saying how Marquette can’t stay with UConn in any phase, but I am starting to lean the other way now. Look for McNeal to go crazy tonight and, on the other end, Adrien is going to put up monster numbers. All in all, UConn is an excellent squad with a lot of talent and as I play out scenarios in my head I can see this game going either way. I’m actually just typing more so I don’t have to think of a prediction for the outcome tonight.
In the end, better inside play beats better outside play and I just think UConn’s front court is too much for the Golden Eagles to handle. It will come down to the wire no question, but UConn slips by in the end to stay on top in the Big East.
Connecticut 80, Marquette 77
I haven’t been more excited about a 1-on-1 matchup this year than I am about Hasheem Thabeet and DeJuan Blair. Thabeet, the 7’3″ junior from Tanzania, had a career high 25 points and 20 rebounds vs. Seton Hall on Saturday. In addition, he swatted 9 shots and when that ISN’T a career high for someone you can start to understand how good he is. Thabeet missed his second triple-double in the last month by the one block, but I doubt he or Jim Calhoun is complaining. He ranks second in the nation in field goal percentage and blocks and has been the leader of the #1 ranked Huskies. Not only does Thabeet get the blocks but he alters every possession. ESPN has started to pick up on this even though I will go to the grave saying that I observed and started talking about this first. Anyways, during his game vs. Syracuse, he blocked 7 shots and altered 9 more and pulled down 16 boards. Forget about the offensive end for anyone dumb enough to knock Thabeet. While his 13.5 points a game don’t compare to a Luke Harangody or a Tyler Hansbrough, you’d be a fool to sell him short on O. He compliments Jeff Adrien (the UConn version of Wes Matthews in terms of value and lack of spotlight) and A.J. Price perfectly and is the main reason the Huskies are looking down on not only the Big East, but the nation as well.
If Hasheem Thabeet is the definition of the proverbial “immovable object”, then DeJuan Blair is the NCAA’s “unstoppable force”. Don’t think for one second that the 8 inches Blair will give up tonight will stop him. Blair’s thick build and tenacious drive has brought him to the top of the leaderboard in offensive rebounds, averaging an astonishing 5.8 a night. He averages 15.4 points a game and hauls in 12.3 boards a game as well. It may be cliché, but it’s true that Blair’s fire and intensity gets the team going every night. Blair also has his sidekicks in Sam Young and Levance Fields and I think there is a good chance we are looking at a preview of the Big East Championship Game tonight in Hartford. Possibly a Final Four matchup as well.
I like Connecticut to continue their 12 game winning streak tonight because A) I believe they have the most talent in the nation, Jerome Dyson or not, and B) they are at home.
Thabeet will get his boards and Sporscenter Top 10 blocks, but I think Blair has a monster game. Look for UConn’s defense on Fields to be a difference maker in what should be the best game of the year to date.
Projected Stat Lines:
Hasheem Thabeet: 7-12 FG, 16 points, 14 rebounds (4 offensive), 4 blocks, 1 steal
DeJuan Blair: 6-9 FG, 15 points, 11 rebounds (3 offensive), 1 block, 1 steal
UConn 81, Pitt 75