Friday, March 06, 2009

Yins Ready for a Steel City Showdown?

Greetings to yins from Pittsburgh, home of Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Joe Namath and a bunch of other quarterbacks, Tony Dorsett, Terry Francona, Stan Musial, Josh Gibson, Pirates, Penguins, Steelers and Pisces (remember "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh"?). Oh, and DeJuan Blair, who grew up in the Hill District, right across the street from the Pitt campus.

Ah, Blair, the Human Quote Machine. The Round Mound of Sound (I just made that up … kinda like it). Tomorrow's UConn-Pitt game could not only decide the Big East regular-season champion but also the league's Player of the Year. Conventional wisdom has Blair and Hasheem Thabeet in a neck-and-neck race, with whoever comes out on top tomorrow earning the award.

If the award was given to the player with the best sound bytes, Blair would already be sporting the crown. While Blair is a sportswriters' dream, full of great quotes, Thabeet is 7 feet, 3 inches of sports clichés.

A sampling:

Blair, getting all third person on us: "I hope (Thabeet) shows up with an 'I'm going to kill DeJuan' attitude', because DeJuan already has that attitude for him. It should make for a beautiful game."

Thabeet: "I'm going to go over there and be ready, play aggressive … we're looking forward to the next challenge on Saturday."

Blair: "Yeah, he made me eat the ball (on one play), but I made him eat it right back. People talk bout him blocking shots. Of course he's going to block shots, he's 7-foot-3. But that doesn't mean you have to be afraid of him. I was like, 'OK, you blocked my shot, now you have to stop me again.' I don't think anyone can stop me twice in this country."

Thabeet: "If you go there just trying to prove a point, you end up in foul trouble. People are expecting me to take it personal … it's not about Hasheem vs. Pittsburgh, it's about UConn basketball. I'm going to go there with my team, and we're going to be ready for challenge."

Blair: "It's March, c'mon. March is when big players step up. I'm here … I’m not scared of anybody. I just hope the refs let us play. I hope Thabeet is on the court all day, and I hope I am, too. That's what the crowd wants to see."

Thabeet: "I'm really not looking to talk about stuff off the court. I'll go there, play basketball and prove this stuff on the court. All this will be the talk of fans, media, writers – all I need to do is go play ball. They can talk all they want. On Saturday, it's UConn vs. Pittsburgh."

Game, set, match. Of course, talk is cheap. As Thabeet said, it's all about proving it on the court. Right now, Blair has to be the frontrunner for conference player of the year. When Pitt beat UConn on Feb. 16, he had 22 points and 23 rebounds; Thabeet had five points and four rebounds before fouling out.

But a big effort tomorrow by Thabeet could change all that.

***If you're wondering (like me) when the league's coaches are supposed to have submitted their awards ballots by … well, it was supposed to be today. However, the league offers coaches the opportunity to make conditional selections – "If this happens, this guy's the Player of the Year … if that happens, this guy's the Player of the Year," etc.

Sounds like that might be what Jim Calhoun's ballot looks like.

Calhoun believes the winner of both the Coach of the Year and Player of the Year awards should come from the regular season champion – with one exception. "We were picked No. 1, so exclude me. But I think anyone else who wins the title probably deserves to be coach of the year – either Rick (Pitino) or Jamie (Dixon)."

As for Player of the Year: "I think the game at noon and the game at 9 p.m. (Louisville at West Virginia), the player of the year will come out of there."

Calhoun can't vote for Thabeet, but told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "It's tough to make the argument that (Blair) isn't the MVP of our league."

***Interesting stat from today's Post-Gazette: Only six schools have defeated the No. 1 team in the nation twice in the same season (Georgia Tech has done it three times).

They are: North Carolina (beat Duke twice in 1998), Georgia Tech (beat UNC twice in 1994, beat Duke and UNC in 1993 and beat Kentucky twice in 1955), Missouri (beat Kansas twice in 1990), Oklahoma (beat Mizzou and Kansas in 1990), Duke (beat UCLA twice in 1965) and, of course, CCNY (beat Bradley twice in 1950 … did they beat the spread, too?).

Pitt will try to add to that list tomorrow at noon.

***Thabeet needs nine blocks to catch Patrick Ewing as the all-time block leader in Big East history. Ewing swatted away 247 shots in 62 career games; Thabeet has 238 in 51 contests.
***UConn has won 15 conference games for the sixth time in school history. No other Big East program has ever won 15 more than once.


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