Thursday, March 13, 2008

Running through the Big East

STORRS, CONN - Due to a vicious Ohio storm that shattered the state's snowfall records, the Cincinnati Bearcats/UConn Huskies game originally slated for Saturday afternoon was delayed until Sunday night.

For the Bearcats, which committed a torrent of turnovers in the early going, the confines of the Gampel Pavilion weren't much more comfortable. No.15 UConn's arsenal of threes, jumpers, fast-break lay-ins, alley-oops, and rim-ringing dunks created a storm of its own. This would shatter another record, as UConn established the largest margin of victory by any team in Big East history.

UConn absolutely blood-lettered the Bearcats Sunday night, a 96-51 laugher before a strongly partisan and at times crass crowd of 10,167.

"It was almost surreal at times," said UConn coach Jim Calhoun. "It multiplies, and I've been on both ends."

A trademark pull-up jumper by A.J. Price, who handed out a game-high six assists, kick-started the Huskies' most efficient offensive output of the season. The Huskies scored 20 of the game's first 25 points before running off a wowing 30-0 run. That's not a typo. There is not a vindictive, Husky-crazed copy-editor looking over this story. They ripped off 30 unanswered points.

The 30 straight points featured everything from Jeff Adrien's first career 3-pointer to Hasheem Thabeet registering his presence in a larger-than-his-glacier-size-shoe way. Thabeet - a consensus top-10 pick in the 2008 NBA draft if he declares - made Cincinnati look nothing like the team that scored a pair of resume victories over Pittsburgh and Villanova and nearly knocked off the Huskies back on Jan. 23 (when they allowed a 12-point edge to slip away). Thabeet, who recorded a game-high eight blocked shots in 25 minutes, altered, influenced, manipulated, and changed the trajectory of nearly every Cincinnati shot near the key.

The eight plucks jumped Thabeet's total to 94 this season, allowing him to eclipse Alonzo Mourning (who had 93 at the conclusion of the 1991-92 campaign) in the Big East record books for most swats in a season.

The Bearcats looked like a team that had fumbled the playbook, employing a run-and-jack offense en route to shooting an abysmal five of 32 from the field (15.6 percent).

UConn utilized a suffocating press and 2-3 zone that instigated 10 costly first-half turnovers.

"We looked like a tired ballclub," said Bearcat coach Mick Cronin, looking emotionally and physically drained himself.

"We went through a terrible debacle with our travel situation the last three days. But give Connecticut credit. When they make perimeter shots the way they did today, combine that with their size and athleticism, they're a devastating team."

The Huskies (24-7, 13-5 Big East) continued to ratchet up the score in the second half, with Thabeet punching three consecutive Kenny Belton shot attempts in one eye-popper of a possession.

Thabeet unleashed a ferocious one-handed, posterizing dunk on Anthony McClain. The highlight-reel flush gave the Huskies a blistering 62-26 lead with 13:26 remaining. The Huskies then reeled off a 16-6 run, capped by a Jerome Dyson jumper, as the bulge ballooned to 50. With 7:19 still remaining, the fans headed for the exit signs.

Cincinnati's Deonta Vaughn, who cooked UConn for 34 (including eight trifectas) last time the two teams met, was left looking for answers this time around. UConn negated Vaughn, holding the Indiana-bred sharpshooter to just nine points on 3-for-12 shooting.

Stanley Robinson, known to the Connecticut basketball culture as "Sticks," had one of the finest games of his young career. The Alabama-bred sophomore scored a game-high 18 points, including three treys, and snared eight rebounds. Robinson, who has never been too crazy about the UConn beat writers, would flee the scene without speaking to the press following the game, as the 6-foot-9 wunderkind is known to do.

At the end of the brutal blitzing, however, Thabeet was the center of attention.

Thabeet has clearly reached the zenith pinnacle of his career. Still of relative neophyte status, Calhoun believes the Tanzania native could be league-ready defensively but is certainly not ready offensively. The scouts and gurus alike, however, peg the 7-foot-3 mountain of a man as the most promising big of the 2008 draft class.

Thabeet, who retreated to the bench to standing ovations and relentless chants of "one more year!" as the gangly Jonathon Mandeldove replaced him, has not yet arrived at a decision. Thabeet continues to keep the Connecticut media circus guessing, though his pro stock can only be weighed in whale-sized units.

His emergence as a menacing shot blocker has drawn the drool of a surplus of scouts, without question. It was evidenced against Pittsburgh, Syracuse, DePaul, Notre Dame (twice) and South Florida. The same skeptics that said he had miles to go have suddenly morphed into witnesses.

Calhoun, with his classic militaristic zeal but unmatched protection of his youth-laden hoop team (Senior Night festivities were nonexistent Sunday, as the Huskies are devoid of any senior leadership) demanded he stay put and avoid being vacuumed into mock draft lure.

Other pundits and detractors recited the Patrick O'Bryant story. Let's not forget, O'Bryant needed just one game in the wild and dizzying 2006 NCAA tournament to mount his pro stock. The walking one-game wonder elicited some serious looks from the plethora of scouts who tuned into the Bradley game that night.

Thabeet's evolution into the NCAA's elite class of defenders, however, has come at a frantic pace and dropped quite a few jaws in the process.

Next Stop: New York, as a somewhat callow playoff squad - Calhoun admits that these are uncharted waters for a lot of his young guns, but is quick to point out that Adrien hung 17 in a tournament game back in 2006 and Austrie, who's come into his own this season, has more experience than Dirk Diggler - looks to swim with the sharks of Louisville, Notre Dame, and Georgetown, in an aquarium that's known simply as the Mecca of basketball.

Other Late Games of Note
Pittsburgh 98, DePaul 78: At the Peterson Events Center in Pittsburgh, DeJaun Blair scored 22 points and hauled in 14 rebounds to lead the Panthers. Sam Young added 19 points on 7-for-13 shooting, while Levance Fields collected 11 points, nine boards, and kicked in a game-high nine assists. Dar Tucker paced the Blue Demons with 23 points. Depaul's loss helped Providence seal a playoff berth.
Georgetown 55, Louisville 52: At the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., the No. 10 Hoyas staved off No. 13 Louisville behind 15 points from super frosh Austin Freeman. Roy Hibbert added 12 points and six boards for the Hoyas, who've gutted out their last two victories by a margin of 2.5 points. Terrence Williams led Louisville with 14 points. Earl Clark registered his ninth double-double with 11 points and 10 boards.
Syracuse 87, Marquette 72: At the Carrier Dome, Jonny Flynn and Donte Greene dropped 21 points apiece to help lift Syracuse to a signature victory, albeit at the dead-end of the regular season. Paul Harris, the 6-foot-4 freak of athleticism and long-time friend of Flynn, added 14 points and six boards.
Notre Dame 67, South Florida 60: At Tampa, Luke Harangody continued to stake his claim as a Big East Player of the Year favorite, scoring a game-high 21 points while grabbing nine boards to lead the Irish. Rob Kurz added 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting in 19 minutes of play. Freshman standout Dominique Jones scored 20 points to pace the Bulls.