Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Views from UConn Territory ...

... as the Huskies get ready to start Big East play:

In Jim Calhoun’s 22 years as University of Connecticut men’s basketball head coach, the Huskies have never had five players average in double figures for a season. But as UConn heads into Big East play beginning Thursday night against Seton Hall, all five of its starters are scoring at a double-figures clip: Jerome Dyson (14.9), Jeff Adrien (13.5), A.J. Price (12.6), Stanley Robinson (11.9) and Hasheem Thabeet (10.5).

This could be viewed in two different ways.

While it’s hardly a given that all five will remain in double-digits through the rest of the season, it does speak to the fact that the Huskies boast a rather balanced scoring attack. That four different players have been game-high scorers so far through UConn’s first 11 games – Dyson and Price four times each, Adrien and Robinson twice apiece (Adrien and Robinson shared high-scoring honors with 16 each against Florida A&M) – adds further credence to UConn’s balance. As does the fact that the five players’ scoring averages are only separated by 4.4 points.

However, it also suggests that the Huskies don’t really boast a go-to guy. Or who do you get the rock to when you absolutely need some key hoops down the stretch?

Price is probably the best bet. But he’s also the point guard. In a perfect world, the Huskies would have somebody Price could dribble-penetrate and dish off to for a big hoop.

Alas, this is not a perfect world, and the Huskies are not a perfect team. But they’re better – far better than they were a year ago and even a month ago – and it says here that they can make some noise in the Big East this season and make a definite run at an NCAA Tournament bid.

Road Warriors?

One thing that stood out to this observer in UConn’s 85-82 win over a game UCF team Friday night was the way the team comported itself in a hostile environment. While UCF fans will never be confused with Cameron Crazies, they were out in decent force – the announced crowd of 6,224 was the largest in school history, believe it or not.

From behind press row, the fans were particularly targeting Thabeet. Some of the things shouted at the 7-foot-3 center would never be said to him face-to-face – or, more aptly in the case of most of the vertically-challenged hecklers, face-to-chest. Thabeet seemed to get caught up in the interaction a little bit. After he’d make an inside basket or a foul shot, the big guy often gave a death stare to the leather-lungs behind the basket, or simply looked up at the scoreboard, then back at the fans with a satisfactory glance.

While this suggests a bit of rabbit ears on Thabeet’s part, it also hints at a bit of cockiness or “swagger,” if you will. This can’t be a bad thing as the Huskies head out for three more road games over the next 10 days to kick off their Big East slate.

Injury Bug

The story of the Big East so far has been injuries. Louisville lost both Juan Palacios and David Padgett to injuries and paid the price, losing to BYU and Dayton and falling out of the Top 25. (Both have returned to the Cardinals' lineup, Padgett in time for this afternoon's surprise loss to Cincinnati).

Syracuse lost second-leading scorer Eric Devendorf for the season with a torn ACL. And in consecutive games, Pittsburgh lost Mike Cook for the rest of the season and Levance Fields for most of the rest of the way.

Which leads us to the (admittedly somewhat cryptic) question: Which player could UConn least afford to lose? It says here it’s Price again, with Thabeet a not-too-distant second.

Price has been running the with aplomb. He leads the Big East in both assists (6.18) and assist/turnover ration (3.09). And, of course, he can score the ball. Quite simply, as A.J. Price goes, so go the Huskies.

Thabeet would be a huge loss on the defensive end of the floor. He’s currently second in the Big East in blocked shots (3.55 per game) and almost certainly leads the conference in altering shots, if such a stat existed.

Prediction Time

We liked Pittsburgh to win the conference title until the injuries to Cook and Fields cropped up. The Panthers will still be competitive with their stout defense, but losing their best player for at least two months will be tough to overcome.

Otherwise, Georgetown appears to be the best team, though the Hoyas aren’t great. In fact, there are no great teams in the Big East this season, just a bunch of good ones. UConn is one of the good ones. How good? We’ll soon find out.

Here’s how we see the Big East stacking up: 1. Georgetown (13-5); 2. Marquette (12-6); 3. West Virginia (12-6); 4. Louisville (11-7); 5. Villanova (11-7); 6. Connecticut (10-8); 7. Pittsburgh (10-8); 8. Providence (10-8); 9. Syracuse (10-8); 10. Seton Hall (9-9); 11. Notre Dame (8-10); 12. Rutgers (7-11); 13. South Florida (7-11); 14. Cincinnati (6-12); 15. St. John’s (5-13); 16. DePaul (3-15).

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