Saturday, January 31, 2009

Chart Toppers

So where do we start?

Hasheem Thabeet's triple-double (15 points, 11 boards, 10 blocks), just the seventh in UConn men's hoop history and 13th by any player in a Big East game?

Thabeet's 10 blocks, tying his own school record he shares with Donyell Marshall and Emeka Okafor?

UConn's 20-0, game-deciding run? A.J. Price's game-high 19 points (seemingly all of them stopping any kind of PC momentum)? Price's 1,000th career point? Stanley Robinson's long-awaited, season-high 18-point effort? UConn's 17 blocked shots, tied for the second-highest single-game total in school history?

Nah. The most relevant number of the night after UConn's 94-61 whitewash of nemesis Providence tonight? No. 1. That's where the number that will be affixed next to UConn's name on Monday afternoon, when the AP Top 25 poll is released. Just don't tell that to Jim Calhoun.

"We're not No. 1, and I don't plan on reading any papers or the polls until 9 p.m. on Monday night, so I have no idea what you're talking about," he quipped.

Calhoun quickly added: "What is it? It's just a number that goes by quickly. But if there's 343 teams in the country, and at some point in the season – especially 21 games into the season – someone says you're the best team in the country, it's nice. No more, no less. The meaning of it for NCAA purposes or Big East purposes is not significant, but … being No. 1 in the country – will I use it a little bit for the first time (for motivation)? I might. You don't want to be No. 1 for a day."

That will essentially be the case if UConn doesn't handle business against No. 7 Louisville Monday night at Freedom Hall.

"A lot of teams have lost the No. 1 (ranking), but we haven't had our chance to defend that spot," Price pointed out. "We're really focused on Louisville right now. I think the Big East standings right now are more important than being the No. 1 team."

And in those standings, the Huskies (20-1 overall, 9-1 Big East) are actually third – behind Marquette and Louisville (both 8-0 in league play).

"That shows how deep this league is," said PC coach Keno Davis.

"It's a nice feeling for the moment right now, but we really want to be No. 1 at the end of the year," said Jeff Adrien. "We'll enjoy it, it will be great … we're excited, and we're ready for a new challenge."

***If it seemed the Huskies played with a little more fire than usual on Saturday, particularly Price and Adrien – well, they did.

After canning a 3-pointer at one point in the latter half, Price shouted something out while shaking his head, as if in disbelief of his own hot shooting.

Said Price: "Coach got up and yelled, 'He got hit.' I just told him, 'It doesn't matter, Coach. It doesn't matter.' That's how I was feeling at that point. We were riding a wave, and we were determined not to lose this game."

A lot of it had to do with the history between UConn and Providence. When the Friars beat the Huskies last year in Hartford, UConn players took exception to their excessive celebration. They swore revenge later in the season at Providence, but the Friars won that one, too.

Gavin Edwards noticed that Price was a little more amped up than usual.

"Probably just because it was Providence, and he just wanted to smack them," Edwards said. "There was bad blood between us."

Adrien and PC's Jon Kale were each hit with a technical foul with 50 seconds left in the first half.

"I was just talking to my boy, Jon," Adrien insisted. "We played AAU basketball, we kind of grew up together. We were just talking, and the ref decided to give us a 'T'. There was no trash-talking or anything like that."

***Thabeet's left shoulder, originally injured against St. John's, flared up on him in today's game. Calhoun used it to motivate Thabeet, in a way only Calhoun could.

"I said (to Thabeet), 'Let's operate (on the shoulder) right now.' He (got) so (upset) at me that he took it out on Providence."

***Here are the seven triple-doubles in UConn history:

Player Date, Opponent Stats
Hasheem Thabeet 1/31/09 vs. Providence 15p, 11r, 10b
Marcus Williams 2/21/06 vs. Notre Dame 18p, 10r, 13a
Ben Gordon 12/20/03 vs. Iona 17p, 16r, 11a
Emeka Okafor 12/6/03 vs. Army 18p, 15r, 10b
Caron Butler 12/26/00 vs. URI 14p, 12r, 11a
Doron Sheffer 12/30/95 vs. Hartford 10p, 10r, 11a
Donyell Marshall 1/17/94 vs. Hartford 23p, 11r, 10b

***For what it's worth, Calhoun is picking the Cardinals to win the Super Bowl.

Charles No Longer in Charge

UConn sophomore center Charles Okwandu has been declared academically ineligible and will not see game action for the rest of this season, the school announced this morning.

Okwandu will be permitted to practice with the team but will not suit up for games or be permitted to travel with the team.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to be a part of the team while I re-focus on my academics,” said Okwandu. “I know with hard work and the support of my coaches and teammates that I will be successful in the classroom and be able to rejoin the team next season.”

“I know that this year has been a challenge for Charles, as it is for many college students,” said Calhoun. “We are 100% supportive of Charles as he focuses on his primary goal of attaining a UConn education.”

Friday, January 30, 2009

Another Friar Roast?

By now, any UConn fan worth his salt pretty much knows the numbers: for reasons that defy logic, Providence has beaten the Huskies three straight times (including a sweep last year) and five of their last seven meetings.

Most surprisingly, the Friars have won four straight times on UConn's home floor. That includes a 66-56 win on Jan. 24, 2004 -- the infamous Ryan Gomes/"I (bleeped) up" game -- in Hartford over the eventual national champions, as well as last season's 77-65 win at the XL Center.

Recently spoke with Tim Welsh, who coached PC the prior 10 seasons before being canned last spring, to try to glean any reasons for the Friars' success against UConn.

"We just played well," Welsh shrugged. "I remember vividly, an ESPN sideline reporter asking me the same question in Providence. I think we just played well. Sometimes it just happens. It's not that our guys liked beating them more than other teams. Or that we had a tremendous scheme. On those nights, we happened to play well."

Welsh, who is now doing work for both SNY and ESPN, added: "Naturally, some of it was a respect level for their program."

Ah, respect. The Huskies didn't think PC (which is now coached by reigning national coach of the year Keno Davis) showed a lot of it last Jan. 17, when Dwain Williams and Brian McKenzie hit shots from all over the floor and the Friars emerged with the 12-point win at the XL Center. UConn -- A.J. Price and Jeff Adrien, in particular -- didn't hide their feelings prior to a March 6 rematch in Providence.

We want to blow them out," Price said at the time.

The Friars wound up winning, 85-76. Both Adrien and Price insist they don't harbor any lingering ill will from last season.

"They got it, you know," Adrien said. "They won, they enjoyed it, (but) they didn't do too much after that. It's what you do after that. You beat us and you've got to build from that. I don't think they really did that last year. This year's a different year, whole different team, whole different coaching staff, and both teams are excited to play each other."

Added Price, who needs four points today to reach 1,000 for his career: "I did (have animosity) the second game when we played them at Providence, but they beat us there, too. I can't have any animosity towards them, other than they've beaten us a couple of times and we need to win this game."

So is this a rivalry? Maybe, maybe not.

"I don’t think Connecticut considers Providence their rival," said Welsh, "but I think PC looks at them and says, 'They’ve got something we would like to get … the Final Fours, the national championships, all those games on TV. And it's 1 ½ hours down the road."

But, Price countered: "Actually, it is (a rivalry). It's not talked about much, in that sense. But I think this is one of the better rivalries. They always play us tough."

"Animosity probably has built (up)," admits PC junior guard Brian McKenzie, "especially after we beat them again. But hopefully some respect, too."

There's that 'R' word again.

"I don't know what it is," said McKenzie, "But we've had a lot of fun at the Hartford Civic Center. I'm sure they'll try to fix that this year. All their guys are competitors, and so is Coach Calhoun.

"I know for a fact that they're waiting for us."

"It's going to be a tough game," Price predicted, "but I still think we should win the game if we execute and do the things we know we can do."

There's also the fact that, if UConn wins, it will almost certainly take over the No. 1 spot in the national rankings on Monday for the first time since March 7, 2006.

"I don't want them to be No. 1," admitted PC senior guard Jeff Xavier, "because that would mean a loss for us."

***Jim Calhoun will stick with the same five starters tomorrow (Price, Adrien, Hasheem Thabeet, Stanley Robinson, Jerome Dyson), but said the Huskies will likely go with a three-guard look for much of the game against the smaller Friars. He specifically mentioned that Donnell Beverly could see some rare playing time.

"Sticks (Robinson) is more comfortable at the four against a Geoff McDermott-type," Calhoun explained. "The match-ups seem to be difficult."

***Oh, and how about this chestnut: the last time PC has beaten a team ranked as high as No. 2? Yup, No. 2 UConn -- 69-67 on March 12, 1994 at the Big East tournament that the Friars would eventually win.

***Got a first chance to see Ater Majok actually play today in practice and, yup, the kid has some game. At one point, he took a pass in the right corner, drove baseline, made a nifty spin move at the low-post block and swished a short jumper.

***Kemba Walker (left knee, ankle sprain) was heavily taped up today, but it seems he'll definitely be ready to go tomorrow.

"He loves wearing tape," Calhoun quipped. "I think he's trying to get some sympathy from some co-eds. I think he's going to wear it tomorrow."

***Quiz question, courtesy of the Republican-American's Ed Daigneault: Who are the only five Big East teams who have never in their history been ranked No. 1 in the national Top 25? A couple may surprise you.

***I'm told that on the Chinese calendar, this is the Year of the Ox. -------------------------------->>>

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Feelin' Stronger Every Day

Good enough win for UConn tonight. The Huskies did what they had to do with a 71-49 win over lowly DePaul.

Now, thanks to No. 1 Duke's loss to Wake Forest tonight, all that seemingly stands between UConn's first No. 1 ranking since mid-February, 2006 would be Providence on Saturday afternoon at Gampel Pavilion.

But that's not on the Huskies' minds right now.

"Right now, if we get back home safely and have a good practice tomorrow (that's all we care about) … that's premature," said Calhoun. "The biggest thing right now is that Providence beat us twice last year. That's what everybody's thinking about."

Not only that, the Friars have defeated UConn the last four times the teams have played on the Huskies' home floor, dating back to 2003.

Added A.J. Price: "Being No. 1 is not our goal right now. I think it's more for the fans. This team, even if we weren't ranked, knows how good we can be on certain nights. We're confident in our abilities. Whether we're No. 1 or No. 25, we know we need to come out and play with the same intensity."

***Jerome Dyson scored 18 points to lead the Huskies and became the 41st member of UConn's 1,000-point club.

"It felt real good," Dyson said. "It means a lot. There have been a lot of great players here, so it's an honor just to be up there with them."

Dyson's 1,000th career point came on a free throw with 2:35 left to play. He hit three more the rest of the way and now has 1,003 points for his career.

"I knew going into the game (how many points I needed)," he said, "but in the midst of the game it didn't really pop in my head. When I got to the bench, Coach let me know."

***Kemba Walker hurt his left ankle and left the game with about 7 ½ minutes left in the first half after getting it stepped on by Tucker while going for an offensive rebound.

Walker returned to the game about four minutes later and wound up with five points and four assists. His ankle was wrapped with ice as he left the locker room after the game, but Walker said it was just sore, and that he had only "tweaked" the ankle.

***Stanley Robinson, still trying to find his game, missed all three field goals and had two points in nine minutes of action in the first half, then didn't start the latter half (Craig Austrie did). Robinson didn't re-enter the game until there were about two minutes left.

Robinson's lack of PT in the latter half had to do with "(his) ineffectiveness early," said Calhoun, "and I thought the match-ups, guard-wise, were so good, it wasn't as much Stanley as it was how good Craig and everybody else was playing. In fairness to him, he came out ready to play tonight – a couple of jump shots and so on. He's trying to make the effort to get involved in things, and I think he will. And as a matter of fact, I'll make the statement: we probably need him to. We can't keep getting away with small ball all the time."

***A crowd of 9,502 in a building that holds over 15,000 tonight. There was a line at the entrance, we're told, but only because there was just one ticket-taker on duty. One fan asked the ticket-taker if the game was a sell-out.

"No," she responded, "but we had one last night for Metallica."

***DePaul's school band played "Feeling' Stronger Everyday." Highly appropriate. Who sang that one?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Of Styx, Sticks and Stamford

Greetings from Chicago, home of the Blues Brothers, Al Capone, Barack Obama (sorta), Dick Butkus, Isiah Thomas, Donovan McNabb, Joe Girardi, Jonathan Mandeldove, Marcus Liberty (remember him?), Smashing Pumpkins, Styx (worst band ever), Survivor (also on the short list) and … well, Chicago. Who am I forgetting? I'm sure a lot of people, but that's who came to the top of my head, without resorting to Wikipedia.

It is c-c-c-cold out here (8 degrees), but surprisingly not too windy. And while it's supposed to snow quite a bit not too far to the south, Chicago isn't due to get too much snow tonight. Maybe just a dusting. A little different from Connecticut, I'm told, though the Huskies were able to make it out of Bradley this evening and arrived in Chicago about 7:15 p.m. local time (8:15 p.m. EST).

UConn, now ranked No. 2 in the nation, is here to face lowly DePaul. Their biggest challenge, it would seem, would be to guard against overlooking the Blue Demons. For these are not the Blue Demons of Ray Meyer, Terry Cummings and Mark Aguirre. Heck, they're not even the Blue Demons of Joey Meyer and Dallas Comegys. Or Dave Leitao, Wilson Chandler and … well, you get the point.

DePaul is 8-12 overall and 0-7 in the Big East. They've got one of the conference's top scorers (Dar Tucker, a 6-4 forward who averages 18.6 per game) and rebounders (6-10 sophomore Mac Koshwal, 10.5). Junior guard Will Walker averages 11.8 ppg and popped in 17 against Marquette the other day. Beyond that, the cupboard is pretty bare here.

In fact, a strong case could be made that the Blue Demons don't even belong in the Big East. A couple of sports TV talk show types were saying as much the other night. Jerry Wainwright is one of the most quotable coaches in the Big East, but his job could be in serious jeopardy. We were going to go over to Allstate Arena this afternoon to catch Wainwright after practice for an interview, which is always enjoyable. However, Metallica is playing tonight at Allstate, switching DePaul's practice to its campus, which is too much of a hassle to get to from our hotel.

(Speaking of hotels, my room number in both South Bend and now in Chicago has been the same, 611. Really should play that lottery number).

DePaul gave No. 8 Marquette a good run on Saturday, on the road, before eventually falling, 79-70. Tomorrow night's game is sandwiched between a bunch of more heralded showdowns for UConn. The Huskies are fresh off consecutive wins over ranked teams, including an emotional win Saturday night at Notre Dame. This Saturday, arch-enemy Providence (which is 5-2 in the Big East and swept UConn last season) comes to town. And two days later the Huskies travel to Louisville to face Rick Pitino and the No. 7 Cardinals.

Considering all that, it wouldn't be a stretch to suggest this could be one of those games where the Huskies come out a little flat. I can see DePaul putting up a good fight, maybe even leading at halftime, before UConn eventually pulls out a safe, double-digit win. I've never seen a coach who can will his team to victory like Jim Calhoun.

"This is one of those games, you go into a building without all the glitz and glamour," Calhoun said. "But they count this as a Big East win at the end of the season, just as much as they would any other win. So, it's really important that we stay in focus."

***Here's a familiar refrain: Stanley "Sticks" Robinson (5.0 ppg) was asked what he needs to do to get more involved offensively.

"Coach told me to shoot, to get involved," Sticks said. "But at the same time, I'm missing shots. I'm kind of dealing with driving and shooting right now. That's my game plan right now … I'm just anxious to get into that rhythm I haven't found yet … I think I'm doing everything according to plan. I've just got to keep working at it. Everybody will have their day, so it will come."

***When the Huskies played (and lost) here two years ago, Jerome Dyson lost three teeth after slamming his face into the floor while diving for a loose ball.

***Devin Hill, DePaul's 6-foot-9 freshman forward, hails from Stamford. So does UConn's Craig Austrie, though Austrie said the two don't know each other very well. He said they both went to the same high school (Trinity Catholic in Stamford) when Hill was a freshman and Austrie a junior, but Hill later transferred to St. Luke's in New Canaan.

"I haven't really even seen him play," Austrie said. "I've just seen him around."

So much for that sidebar story.

***Anyway, domo arigato! (And don't even try to pretend that Styx isn't the worst band EVER!)

Majok Feature on ESPN Australia

Here's a long feature on Ater Majok that recently aired on ESPN Australia.