Saturday, February 09, 2008

We Got Thabeet

(With apologies to The Go-Go's, as far as the title of this post goes. Hey, at least I didn't use "Thabeet Goes On." Anyway, here's part of the notebook from today's 80-68 UConn victory. Read the rest --including some interesting quotes from Doug Wiggins regarding his recent suspension -- in tomorrow's New Haven Register)

Jim Calhoun believes – or hopes – he knows exactly how far along Hasheem Thabeet is in his development as a player.

"I think he's probably about one year from going to the NBA," the coach joked. "Wild guess."

After Saturday's performance, with scouts from the San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies and Miami Heat in attendance, that's growing increasingly less likely. Thabeet's monster game – career-high 24 points and 15 rebounds, to go with six blocks and about twice as many altered shots – was the latest proof that the 7-foot-3 sophomore is a certain first-round draft pick who's moving up the board practically day by day.

"No one's ready to call (Thabeet) a finished product," said Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt. "He's got a ways to go, but he's stronger and has more balance."

Thabeet had notched a double-double -- 15 points, 10 boards -- by halftime. About midway through the first half, he intimidated Tech's Gani Lawal so much that the 6-8 freshman double-pumped several times and eventually threw a shot to the side of the backboard.

"When a guy pump-fakes four times and shoots the ball over the basket, I'm not sure what that is, but it's something," said Calhoun. "There's no stat for it ... He was sensational."

Indeed, Calhoun believed Thabeet's actual blocked-shot total was much higher than just six.

"The term I used the last two days in practice was, 'Don't throw the ball into the teeth of the lion,'" said Hewitt. "And that's what we did. We threw it right to him, and guys shot an airball or shot it off the backboard over the rim, and they went back the other way."

Thabeet showed improved maturity after an incident with GT's Zack Peacock midway through the first half. The two players got tied up with the ball and Thabeet was fouled. He got visibly upset with Peacock and the officials broke it up. The officials went to the video monitor to see if a technical should be called on Thabeet for retaliation, but decided no 'T' was necessary.

"He punched me," Thabeet reported. "I went up and faked him, the other guy came from behind and punched me. That's why I was kind of not in a good mood. I tried to move out, there were a lot of people holding me, so I just tried to get away from them, and that was it. I didn't try to punch anybody or (do) anything negative, I was just trying to move away from him, that was it."

Friday, February 08, 2008

(Yellow) Jackets Required

Here's some notes from today's practice as the Huskies get set to host an improving Georgia Tech team tomorrow at 4 p.m. at Gampel:

CLOSE CALLS: The Huskies have won five straight contests by single-digit margins -- the first time they've ever done so in coach Jim Calhoun's 22 years at the school. Conversely, all but two of Georgia Tech’s 10 losses this season have come by 10 points or less. There’s been a one-point loss to then-undefeated, then-No. 1 North Carolina and a two-point setback last Saturday to Maryland. In fact, the Yellow Jackets’ three losses in ACC play this season have come by a combined total of five points.

DON'T SLEEP ON TECH: Tech has played much better lately. Since that near-upset of UNC on Jan. 16, the Yellow Jackets have won four of five, three of them on the road. One of those road wins was a 92-82 overtime decision over Virginia on Jan. 27. Dave Leitao, the ex-UConn assistant who now coaches Virginia, told Calhoun in a phone conversation earlier in the week that Tech is one of the better teams in the ACC.
“But,” Calhoun pointed out, “after Duke and North Carolina, there are about seven (teams) who are just the same.”

NOWHERE BUT UP: Last year's 65-52 loss to the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta was "one of the low points of the season," according to Calhoun.

OH, STANLEY!:Stanley Robinson's defense has been strong, particularly on Wednesday night at Syracuse, but he hasn't been very productive offensively. Robinson is averaging just 7.9 ppg in Big East play.

PUT ME IN, COACH: UConn reserves have combined for just 13 points in the team’s last four games. Gavin Edwards, a power forward, has replaced Curtis Kelly, another power forward, as the first 3-man off the bench because he’s more sure with the ball as the Huskies have tried to slow the game down. With fewer possessions, each one is valuable, so Calhoun values a player like Edwards, who is less prone to turning the ball over. Georgia Tech has far more depth, with 10 players averaging double-figure minutes.

CLINCH-ING VICTORY?:Georgia Tech's leading scorer is Anthony Morrow (14.5). Lewis Clinch is second at 11.2, but has struggled greatly in ACC play and, in fact, has lost his starting two-guard position to D'Andre Bell. Freshman Moe Miller also replaced Matt Causey as the team's starting point guard seven games ago as the Jackets' began to turn around their season.

IN STORRS NOW: Tech features a player named Lance Storrs, a freshman who only plays about 7 minutes per game. Storrs ... get it?

OLD RIVALS: G-Tech junior center Alade Aminu hails from Stone Mountain, Ga. -- the same hometown as UConn sophomore reserve center Jonathan Mandeldove. According to The Dove, they played against each other in high school and know each other pretty well.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Notes & Quotes from The Dome

Some postgame notes & quotes following UConn's 63-61 win over Syracuse.

Jim Calhoun, on why the team seems to be playing better defensively since the suspensions of Jerome Dyson and Doug Wiggins (who has since returned):
"That's a very good question. One of those guys (Dyson) I thought was our best individual defender. We're playing better team defense right now, out of necessity. Things happen out of necessity. They have an understanding that, if they don't play together, good things aren't going to happen."

A.J. Price, on the same topic:
"Everybody's talking, everybody understands what their assignment is. We're just playing team 'D,' finding guys who are scorers, and everybody's communicating and rotating."

Price, on the similarities between Syracuse's 2-3 zone and the 2-3 zone UConn played for most of the night:
"It was very similar, because they usually extend so much. They come out very far, past the 3-point line. We had to do that because of (Donte) Greene, and his ability to shoot from anywhere, and (Jonny) Flynn."

Some random quotes on Hasheem Thabeet, who blocked seven more shots on Wednesday and influenced about twice that:
Calhoun: "He's such a difference-maker."
Price: "He's a game-changer, the eraser. Guys beat you off the dribble, I got beat a couple of times, and he was right there to get my back. That's why he's such a dominant player on defense."
Jim Boeheim: "He's good. He's the best shot-blocker in country down there."

Rim Rattlings:
* Calhoun pulled ahead of Boeheim on the all-time wins list with 767 and now stand alone in 10th place. Lou Henson is ninth with 779. Calhoun is now 25-22 all-time against Boeheim (24-22 at UConn).
* Syracuse's Jonny Flynn turned 19 on Wednesday. Flynn, a freshman guard, played all 40 minutes and now has played every minute of each of the Orange's last five games, one of which went to overtime. That's 205 straight minutes.
* Next up: UConn's final non-conference regular-season game, on Saturday against Georgia Tech at 4 p.m. at Gampel Pavilion.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Hey Nineteen

UConn is ranked No. 19 in both this week's AP and Coaches' Poll. It's the Huskies' first sojourn into the Top 25 in over a year, since Jan. 13, 2007, when they were No. 24. UConn lost its next five games.

Coach Jim Calhoun was happy -- but realistic -- about the Huskies' return to the national rankings.

Said the coach: “I think it is a very nice tribute to the kids and how they bounced back from losing three of four to put together a great stretch of basketball over the last five games. This team has battled through some adversity and it has been our goal to get Connecticut basketball back to its place among the nation’s best teams. Today is a reminder that we are closer to that goal. The ranking doesn’t help us get in the NCAA Tournament or win a BIG EAST Championship, but it does have a great psychological value and is a result of some very hard work by a determined group.”

(P.S. -- Can anyone name the band that recorded the song that serves as the title to this post?)

Don't Go Back to Rockville

(Playing court reporter here ... and did anyone catch the R.E.M. song-title reference in the title of this post?)

Doug Wiggins pleaded guilty to a charge of possession of alcohol as a minor and paid a $90 fine, plus court costs, this morning at Rockville Superior Court.

He will also face a brief suspension of his driver's license on a charge of operating a motor vehicle on a suspended license. His license had been suspended after he failed to respond to a citation for a seat belt violation in early January. However, Wiggins has since made restitution on that charge.

Now, the UConn sophomore guard hopes to put the entire Jan. 24 incident behind him.

"Doug hopes his payment of the fine closes the case and will end it all," said his attorney, Rob Britt. "His focus is on school, on the team and on continuing to be a member of the UConn community."

Wiggins appeared in court with Britt by his side but didn't speak with reporters afterwards. Britt addressed some comments Wiggins made following his return to the UConn lineup on Saturday that indicated he felt he had been treated unfairly by UConn police.

"His issue is not with the two (undercover) officers who charged him," Britt said. "He has no complaint with them. His issue was with another officer at the scene."

Britt said Wiggins was bothered by some "remarks" made by that uniformed officer. However, it appears Wiggins won't pursue any legal action.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

A.J. for POY? Maybe

Shortly after watching A.J. Price’s latest terrific all-around game on Saturday (21 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, a hand in every big play down the stretch), a fellow “Horde” member made the statement for all within earshot: “A.J. Price has got to be the Big East Player of the Year right now.”

There was little response, including from myself. It just didn’t sound right. Yes, Price is having a great season, living up to the expectations heaped on him coming out of Amityville High four years ago. But there’s simply too many other good players in the conference to consider him for POY, right?

Upon further reflection, maybe not.

Really, who’s been better this season than Price, who entered Saturday’s action leading the Big East in assists (6.1 per game), second in assist-to-turnover ration (2.65) and 16th in scoring (14.3)? (And that’s in overall games played. In conference play, Price was still tops in assists [6.0] but tied for 9th in scoring at 16.6 – a number that increased to 17.0 following Saturday’s effort.)

Roy Hibbert? He’s the best player on the conference’s best team, he was tabbed the Preseason Player of the Year, and (as UConn fans well know) he’s hit some big shots this year. But entering Saturday’s action, Hibbert was averaging just 13 ppg, 24th in the conference. And the 7-foot-2 center was barely among the league’s top 20 in rebounding – sharing the 20th spot with St. John’s D.J. Kennedy at 6.8 per game.

Let’s look at the other players voted onto the Preseason All-Big East Team. Georgetown’s Jonathan Wallace isn’t among the league leaders in any key category, Louisville’s David Padgett and Marquette’s Dominic James have been hampered by injuries and Syracuse’s Eric Devendorf is out for the season with a torn ACL.

Kentrell Gransberry (South Florida) and Geoff McDermott (Providence) play for lousy teams, and Scottie Reynolds’ Villanova Wildcats are in a nose-dive. Price’s teammate, Jeff Adrien, has been solid but hardly spectacular. Honorable Mention selections? Pitt’s Levance Fields has been out for a month with an injury, and Louisville’s Edgar Sosa doesn’t even start.

Louisville’s Terrence Williams and Marquette’s Jerel McNeal are both having good seasons. But Williams doesn’t score enough, and McNeal (who leads the conference in steals and is 23rd in scoring) isn’t even the best player on his own team (that’s still James).

Who are some other candidates? Cincinnati’s Deonta Vaughn was averaging 20.2 ppg, and UConn saw first-hand how dangerous he can be (34 points, eight 3-pointers). Pitt’s Sam Young and DeJuan Blair have both been strong, as has Syracuse fab freshman Donte Greene.

Right now, the top candidate for Player of the Year is probably Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody. Entering Saturday’s action, the sophomore forward led the league in scoring (19.9) and was second in rebounding (9.8). He’s clearly the top player on the Irish, who are second in the league standings at 6-2, including a win over UConn a few weeks ago.

Still, I just can’t get out of my mind the way Harangody was utterly intimidated by UConn’s Hasheem Thabeet in that Jan. 5 game at South Bend. Thabeet tied a Joyce Center record with 10 blocked shots that night, and nearly all of them were on shots taken by Harangody.

And even when his shots weren’t being swatted away by Thabeet, Harangody’s head was on a swivel. He was held scoreless in the second half on 0-for-8 shooting as he constantly rushed shots, fearing Thabeet’s impending presence.

(Incidentally, Harangody had a similarly rough go of it against Hibbert and the Hoyas on Jan. 19.)

Of course, Harangody is only 6-foot-7. In conference play, he leads the Big East in both scoring and rebounding. Right now, he’s probably the frontrunner for Player of the Year honors.

But A.J. Price certainly isn’t far behind.

With the Big East season at the halfway point (for most teams), here’s one man’s picks for All-Conference: Roy Hibbert, Georgetown; Luke Harangody, Notre Dame; Kentrell Gransberry, South Florida; Deonta Vaughn, Cincinnati; A.J. Price, Connecticut; Sam Young, Pittsburgh; Scottie Reynolds, Villanova; Donte Greene, Syracuse; Terrence Williams, Louisville; Kyle McAlarney, Notre Dame; Brian Laing, Seton Hall.