Sunday, November 30, 2008

Swag Like HASH

A look into Hasheem Thabeet’s Facebook.com profile says it all.

According to his most recent status, Hasheem is “so swaggerlicious.”

Swagger is one word commonly linked to the 7-foot-3 neophyte who is fluent in five different languages, goes clubbing in Hartford, and has watched his reputation as a “gentle giant” disintegrate with time.

Thabeet, a projected lottery pick in the 2009 NBA draft, has become one of the most popular players ever to don a Huskies jersey.

His game shorts may stretch down to the ankles of a 6-footer, his head may scrape the ceiling of Wings Over Storrs (the popular wing joint near campus), but something else makes Thabeet the unusual Husky player, the one you might distinguish from the rest.

To know “Hash” is to love him.

He’s the kid who responds with a hallmark ear-to-ear smile when random fans give him a shout out. He’s that guy who’ll point index finger in the direction of the fan or friend who yells out his name after the game, acknowledging their presence.

He’s the player that, if not for his size, you wouldn’t have noticed during his freshman season. Thought to be the centerpiece of that callow team (eight freshmen, three sophomores and a walk-on senior made up the roster), Thabeet often did his best Houdini act that year.

Now he’s the player you can’t miss, the kid who you want in your foxhole. He’s the kid that scored 24 points and pulled down 15 rebounds while sealing the basket shut with six blocks (remember the 80-68 win against Georgia Tech last year).

He’s the behemoth, the big bertha, the mammoth of a man.

He’s the main reason Cincinnati and Pittsburgh had to alter the trajectory of their shots when they played UConn last year.

Still, for the kid who rectified his woeful free throw shooting problem his freshman year by spending extra hours in the gym, it’s an uphill battle.

“He still has to learn,” said Calhoun, the loquacious, longtime Husky coach who moved to eighth place on the all-time Division I coaches win list Saturday.

“Even though we've got 18 Big East games plus Michigan and Gonzaga, he still has to learn when the smaller guys take his legs off from underneath; he has to fight through it. He's got to stay active."

Against Bryant (an 88-58 laugher), The Huskies failed to pound the ball inside to Thabeet early. This was despite the fact that he was often guarded by players nearly a foot shorter than him.

Then, as the game progressed, the Tanzania native turned in what Calhoun described as a “gangbuster” performance.

Thabeet got free for two-handed slams and went hard to the basket. In the second half, Thabeet scored on the Huskies’ first few possessions with a pair of emphatic stick backs.
He’s the inevitable answer on a team that needs to ratchet up its defensive intensity. Especially as the Huskies inch closer to their Big East slate.

The Huskies allowed Bryant to shoot 11-of-25 from beyond the arc, where they scored more than half their points. Behind the quick trigger of Cecil Gresham (game-high 19 points), Bryant held an early 11-9 edge in a first half that saw the lead change hands nine times. Two minutes later, Andrew Lyell blew past Jeff Adrien on a strong take to the cup. It gave the visitors a 13-12 advantage, pumping life into the Division-I rookies.

"The only thing I would say is better three-point defense, better overall defense. It's difficult. But you still want it because we've got to get ready because of our schedule.”

Calhoun continued, "Early when we pressed them, They were going full speed, we were going half speed. They threw it over the top and made threes. I would like to see them play tougher defense.”

The solution to the problem Calhoun notes will likely fall on Thabeet, no longer the gentle giant.

That’s the way they both want it.