Commentary

Perhaps some stability at the top?

Originally Published: February 2, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Now that it's February, we finally have a team ready, willing and able to be No. 1 for more than a week.

Perhaps even more than a month.

Perhaps all the way into April.

It's the Connecticut Huskies (male division), who climbed to the top spot in the polls Monday afternoon, then strengthened their claim Monday night by bludgeoning Louisville, 68-51. Many people (including the Vegas oddsmakers) saw this as an opportunity for a No. 1 team to lose for the fifth time in six weeks, but UConn never saw it that way.

"We're definitely not No. 1 for one day," power forward Jeff Adrien said. "Teams for some reason are sleeping on us. Analysts and stuff. People were talking about Louisville being the hottest team, but we won as many games in a row as they did. Stuff like that boggles my mind. I wonder what they're watching."

[+] EnlargeJerome Dyson
Joe Robbins/US PresswireJerome Dyson scored 14 for Connecticut, which avoided the fate of Wake Forest and Duke in its first game as No. 1.
Rick Pitino knows what he's watching, after seeing the 21-1 Huskies win their 10th straight against a team that had won nine in a row.

"They truly are the No. 1-ranked team in the country and very deserving of their ranking," the Cardinals coach said. "We were not in their league tonight."

UConn's next major challenge should be Feb. 16, when Pittsburgh visits. If the Panthers or any other teams want that ranking -- North Carolina included -- they're going to have to go into the paint and take it from UConn. And good luck with that.

Nobody in America owns the interior like Connecticut, which used the limitless length of Hasheem Thabeet and the prodigious power of Adrien to humiliate the Cardinals in their own gym. Rarely do you see a team make zero 3-pointers and still win this easily, but a 42-18 advantage in the paint overrides all perimeter pratfalls.

Louisville came into this contest with 6-foot-9 junior forward Earl Clark averaging a team-high 13.5 points and 6-9 freshman center Samardo Samuels averaging a second-best 13.1. The pair left it with a combined five points on 2-for-18 shooting, throwing in seven turnovers to round out the nightmare.

That's largely because of the colossal deterrent that is Thabeet. The 7-3 junior with perfect timing turned McDonald's All-American Samuels into a scared teenager, sending him home with no points and four turnovers. And Thabeet helped turn NBA aspirant Clark into a perimeter jump shooter who jacked up six 3-pointers and missed five of them on his way to a CBA-ready, 2-for-16 fiasco.

"We are a cutting and slashing team, but we are playing like guys from South Dakota who are unbelievable pure shooters," Pitino said. "Thabeet had a lot to do with our offensive philosophy in terms of us being intimidated by him."

The stat sheet credited Thabeet with four blocked shots. That amused UConn coach Jim Calhoun.

"Four blocks?" he asked. "You kidding me? Somebody who saw the game, tell me he had four blocks."

Guess it only seemed like 40, Jim. According to the ESPN Statistics and Analysis team, Thabeet didn't allow a point when he was the primary defender Monday night.

But the best statistical evidence of his dominance was the fact that Louisville shot exactly two free throws. Cards fans will blame the officials for the 24-2 free throw disparity, but it's hard to get fouled if you're petrified of challenging Thabeet.

"His presence was overwhelming," Calhoun continued. "Samardo Samuels, we recruited him like crazy. He's a tremendous young player. I don't think he enjoyed the evening because of Hasheem."

Calhoun stumped for Thabeet to be considered for Big East Player of the Year, and the man has a point. He doesn't light up the offensive stat line like Luke Harangody, averaging 13 points and 10.1 rebounds (though he showed a feathery touch Monday, hitting 5 of 7 shots and 4 of 5 free throws for 14 points). But there is one major reason UConn leads the league in field goal percentage defense and blocked shots, and that reason is the junior from Tanzania.

Haseem Thabeet
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeJeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet led a dominant frontcourt effort by UConn.
"He does change virtually every game he's involved in," Calhoun said.

If Thabeet is the UConn game-changer, Adrien is the UConn fire-starter. There's a place on my Fave Five in college basketball for the hard-edged senior who stands much shorter than his listed 6-7 but plays much taller.

"He's just so damn tough," Calhoun said. "He thinks he can beat anybody up and get every ball. … He can guard a 3, he can guard a 4, he can make a 17-foot jump shot and he's got the heart of a lion."

Adrien roared directly into the Freedom Hall crowd of 20,069 Monday night after scoring one early basket, all but declaring this to be his house and his night. He stormed through the Cardinals for 15 first-half points and finished with 18 points and seven rebounds after setting the tone for his teammates.

"The energy he brings to the team is just great," Thabeet said. "We need that."

Said Adrien: "It's my team. We've grown up together. We know each other so well. We know what everyone eats for breakfast. Everyone knows what I eat for breakfast."

For the record, it's sweet potatoes and egg whites. Then he devours opposing power forwards such as Clark at night.

If there's been a significant flaw with this Louisville team, it's the inability of Clark to approximate the dominant level he achieved in leading the Cards to the Elite Eight in the 2008 NCAA tournament. The junior has been prone to settling for perimeter shots (not a great plan for a 27 percent 3-point shooter), careless with the ball (a team-high 63 turnovers), limited with his left hand and inconsistent with his intensity.

Into that vacuum has stepped Terrence Williams, the poster child for senior improvement. He leads the team in rebounding, assists and steals, and his chronically sketchy shooting has flourished in recent weeks. If Williams hadn't turned in 26 points against the Huskies, Louisville would have lost by 30.

UConn, meanwhile, had plenty of options outside of its post players. Calhoun shelved 6-9 forward Stanley Robinson for the rest of the night after two fouls in the first two minutes, and his three-guard lineup slashed through Louisville all night.

Salivating at matching their speed against Louisville's pressure, A.J. Price, Jerome Dyson and Kemba Walker combined for 33 points -- many of them in transition. Connecticut outran a running team all night and won the race to a majority of the up-for-grabs balls.

"When there was a loose ball tonight, we were there," Calhoun said. "When there was a second shot to get, we got it."

The Hall of Famer's postgame message to his team: "You're good. You're almost very good. What we'd like to be, by April, is great. We're not great yet."

UConn is plenty good enough for early February.

Good enough to hold on to No. 1 for a while and give this chaotic college basketball season some permanence at the top.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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