Blair-Thabeet a heavyweight matchup
Here's a look at the Big Monday matchup between Big East titans Connecticut and Pittsburgh (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET):
The irresistible force versus the immovable objectThis has been a season during which the Big East not only has lived up to its billing as the best conference in college basketball but also has provided us with titanic matchups week after week. Monday night is the next and biggest installment of great Big East battles, as No. 4 Pittsburgh travels to No. 1 UConn, which rides a 13-game winning streak.
There likely will not be a game all season more analogous to a heavyweight fight than when DeJuan Blair and the Panthers take on Hasheem Thabeet and the Huskies. Both teams hang their hats on the success of their physical and intimidating defensive styles. Offensively, each spends so much time going inside and eschewing the 3-point shot that they are likely to spend the whole 40 minutes in a clinch.
Here are some keys to the first of two, possibly three and maybe even four matchups this season:
The Panthers' inside scoring versus Thabeet's shot-blocking
If I were Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon, I'd go at Thabeet as much as possible. I have always felt that you must go at a shot-blocker not only to get him in foul trouble but also to show you will not be intimidated. Pitt's mentality will not change, regardless of how dominant Jim Calhoun's big guy has been of late.
The Panthers shoot at a 53 percent rate inside the arc and are the best offensive rebounding team in the country, grabbing 40 percent of their missed shots. Obviously, Blair is a big reason they get the job done in the paint, because he shoots about 60 percent inside. His job is to get his 265-pound frame on Thabeet and take away the space he needs to use his length to block shots.
In the one game these two teams played last season, Blair was held to 5-of-14 shooting, and the Panthers shot 32 percent as a team. Thabeet blocked five shots, and Jeff Adrien swatted four in the Huskies' 60-53 win. Blair will be ready for Monday's matchup, but he must stay on the court by not committing silly fouls.
The importance of Levance Fields
Remember, in Pittsburgh's loss last season, Fields did not play because of a foot injury. This season, he has been the consummate floor leader for Dixon, and he is having a fabulous senior season. His assist-turnover ratio is a goofy 4.15-1, and in the past four Panthers games, all victories, he has averaged more than 12 assists a game.
Great point guards constantly get a piece of the paint. They have the ability to get into the lane off the dribble and force defensive rotations. If Fields gets into the lane the way Seton Hall's guards did, it will allow him to dump the ball off to the open man for easy baskets. If he attacks Thabeet and forces him to rotate to the ball, it would allow Blair to get behind the defense and finish.
Pittsburgh runs some excellent set plays, but UConn plays great scouting-report defense. Former NBA coach Chuck Daly used to say, "What will a team do when the play breaks down? Because the play will break down." In this case, Fields' breakdown ability needs to get the Panthers some easy scoring opportunities.
Sam Young's versatility
Young will be the recipient of Fields' playmaking. The Panthers' leading scorer at 17.9 points a game, he is one of the best inside-out scorers in the country and could be a matchup problem for both Stanley Robinson and Adrien. Although he is a streaky deep shooter, he is enough of a threat that when the UConn defenders crowd him, he can explode to the rim and try to challenge Thabeet off the dribble. If he knocks down jumpers, it will take a lot of heat off Blair inside.
The assertiveness of Hasheem Thabeet
There is not a more improved player in the country than Thabeet. Based on the sheer size of his 7-foot-3 frame, he has been a defensive presence since the day he showed up in Storrs as a raw, young player from Tanzania. In two-plus seasons, he has blocked more than four shots a game. But before this season, his skills had been limited on the offensive end of the court.
This season, and particularly during the current win streak, he is stepping it up offensively. His footwork around the basket has improved dramatically, and as a result, he is shooting 65 percent in the lane and drawing five fouls a game. Getting Blair and Tyrell Biggs in foul trouble -- an Achilles' heel for both -- would be a huge bonus to the scoring Thabeet has recently provided.
Thabeet, with his overwhelming presence and mystique, has the opportunity to parlay Saturday's incredible 25-point, 20-rebound, nine-block performance into an opportunity Monday night to make his mark against his toughest opponent yet. From the opening tip, he needs to have a disposition to dominate this game.
The maturity of Kemba Walker
With Jerome Dyson done for the season, the Huskies are left without one quality player on the perimeter. Although Walker is not Khalid El-Amin, he will be a critical component against the Panthers. In Dyson's absence Saturday, Walker played 32 of the 40 minutes and chipped in eight points in the win. It was 11 more minutes than his average.
Walker has had more ups than downs in his freshman season, and has shown flashes of brilliance. He will earn an opportunity to help make up for the loss of Dyson if he plays with the type of savvy reserved for upperclassmen such as teammate A.J. Price. With his New York City pedigree and a half season in the Big East under his belt, Monday night would be a perfect time for Walker to step up his game.
The toughness of Jeff Adrien
In a game in which toughness will abound, Adrien, the poster child for Calhoun's style of play, will be an important part. Along with Thabeet, he is averaging a double-double, and the duo's physical presence will be a match for Blair & Co. around the basket. In a war of attrition necessitated by foul trouble, Adrien is an insurance policy in containing Blair.
Although Pittsburgh has five upperclassman starters and the best player in the Big East at three positions in Fields, Blair and Young, UConn has the emerging dominance of Thabeet and the experience of Adrien and Price. The home-court advantage in this first matchup usually would be the big difference in a game like this one, but saying that gives no credit to the maturity and competitiveness of Dixon's team.
I have seen both teams play in person this season, and I know both are capable of cutting down the nets in Detroit. As a former coach and now an ESPN analyst, I have seen enough of both teams to know which plays coaches will run and which defensive adjustments both coaches will make. This game ultimately will be all about intensity and toughness.
I just have no idea who will win.
Fran Fraschilla, a college basketball analyst for ESPN, is a regular contributor to Insider.
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