I don’t particularly follow the NBA, but one thing even a poseur like me can appreciate about the league is that it nourishes its most intense rivalries in the crucible of the playoffs. When the Red Sox and the Yankees face each other in October it’s always great, but of course the Red Sox and the Yankees don’t always face each other in October. Same for the NFL. Just when you think the Giants and Cowboys are on-track for a nice little NFC feud of consequence, the former’s knocked out in the divisional round and the latter doesn’t even make it that far.
But in the NBA it seems like the team to beat is almost always standing in your way in the playoffs. Back in the day, Detroit had to get past Boston. When the Pistons pulled that off, the next year Chicago had to get past Detroit. When the Bulls performed that feat, the next year New York had to get past Chicago. Most memorably for me (only because I was there), in 2002 Sacramento had to get past L.A. They almost did.
One thing I really appreciate about Jim Calhoun, then, is that he’s sustained an unusual and indeed NBA-like level of continuity at Connecticut. Not just continuity in results, mind you, but also continuity in style. UConn is always UConn, putting the fear of God into any opponent foolhardy enough to bring the ball in the paint. If you squint hard enough you can ignore 2006-07 entirely–then it looks like the Huskies are a hardy perennial just like Kobe, KG, or Dwight.
Having ever-fearsome UConn on hand year after year means other teams are tested against an enduring standard. George Mason’s win against the Huskies in the 2006 Elite Eight wasn’t as huge as it was simply because the underdog won. Strictly speaking it would have been an equally big upset had the Patriots won by bombing away from the perimeter. But the fact that Jim Larranaga’s team took the ball right into the teeth of the UConn defense and won the game in the paint was what made the win an unalloyed triumph and not a mere fluke. (”We got beat in the post, which we really haven’t all year,” Calhoun said that afternoon, “and we got beat good in the post.”)
Speaking of unalloyed triumphs, Pitt beat Connecticut 76-68 in Hartford last night. The Panthers won with serial excellence. First it was feathery jumpers from Sam Young. Then, over a period spanning both halves, it was fearless–and effective–attacks on the basket from DeJuan Blair. Then, finally, it was two well-timed threes from Levance Fields. (Though truth be told the second of the two was achingly ill-advised. When you’re 1-of-9 from the field, DeJuan Blair is your teammate, and Hasheem Thabeet has four fouls, you do not shoot a three early in the clock. But it went in. Hoops rewards accuracy over judgment. Dig it.)
There have been other great games this season, and there have been other games between teams that can win the national championship. But this was the first great game between teams that can win the national championship. Wake Forest and North Carolina played a tremendous game in Winston-Salem on January 11, and the Heels and Duke certainly put on a good show for the first half of their game last week. But neither of those games can compare with what we saw last night. It’s too bad Jerome Dyson’s out for the year and Connecticut was down a starter for this one (Carolina, of course, would say join the club), but this game was 40 minutes of sustained and ferocious combat between two of the best four teams in the country. When it was over Pitt, and more particularly Blair, had conquered the UConn, and more particularly Thabeet, challenge.
There’s never a bad time, of course, to record a 22-23 double-double, as Blair did last night. But to hang it on Thabeet at his place in front of a flock of NBA scouts on ESPN’s Big Monday would have to qualify as some seriously good timing.
Alert reader David H. writes:
Having just been thoroughly impressed by Mr. Blair’s performance against UConn, and fresh off reading your Unfiltered post on his importance to Pitt, I took a look at his personal stats on kempom.com. I knew he was a good rebounder and post scorer, but what I found blew me away.
I’m sure you already noticed this, and possibly even pointed it out in a post, but by the numbers he is BY FAR the best major-conference offensive rebounder of the past five years. He’s so far ahead it looks like a typo.
DeJuan Blair, Pitt (2009) 25.7
Aleks Maric, Nebraska (2008) 16.8
DeJuan Blair, Pitt (2008) 16.6
Sean May, North Carolina (2005) 16.6
Kevin Young, Missouri (2006) 16.4
Jordan Hill, Arizona (2009) 15.9
Yancey Gates, Cincinnati (2009) 15.7
And he has the best offensive rating of any major-conference player (with 24 percent usage rate or higher).
DeJuan Blair, Pitt (2009) 129.2
Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina (2009) 126.7
Kevin Love, UCLA (2008) 126.6
Travis Diener, Marquette (2005) 126.6
Chris Lofton, Tennessee (2007) 125.5
Brandon Roy, Washington (2006) 125.3
Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina (2008) 125.2
He’s no slouch when it comes to defensive rebounding, either.
Blake Griffin, Oklahoma (2009) 32.4
Michael Beasley, Kansas St. (2008) 29.9
DeJuan Blair, Pitt (2009) 28.7
Kevin Love, UCLA (2008) 28.5
Jon Brockman, Washington (2008) 28.1
Al Horford, Florida (2007) 27.1
Aaron Gray, Pitt (2006) 27.0
Aleks Maric, Nebraska (2008) 27.0
(BONUS side note! I’m getting entirely too many great emails lately. Tell you what, I’ll start up a weekly mailbag here in Unfiltered from now until Detroit. Call it, um, Unfiltered-Back! I don’t know, I need a name. Anyway, let me hear from you and I’ll respond here.)
It is of course too early for definitive POY distinctions. There’s still five weeks of basketball to be played, three of them before ballots for this kind of thing are due. But, per David’s grunt work, let me state at the top that the fact that there’s already consensus on who will win national POY doesn’t mean we all have to be on board. Surely if 2008 taught us anything it’s that once in a great while the inevitable winner can turn out to be not so inevitable after all, especially when confronted with an unforeseen but extraordinary late entrant to the field.
Not declaring either way yet, mind you. Just saying, my ballot’s still blank.