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November 24, 2008

UConn vs. Miami: Everyone Looks Good

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 12:25 pm

No doubt Xavier‘s hard-fought win against Memphis was more exciting down the stretch, but as it happens there was a truly “big” game being played at the same time at the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands: Connecticut vs. Miami. Two top-20 teams, Big East vs. ACC. The coming tournament-happy week could bring a few more collisions of equal heft but this was the first one. And it was fun, as the Huskies prevailed 76-63.

In my Big East preview this year (buy the book!), I dinged UConn for its surprisingly weak defensive rebounding, noting that said weakness was the largest single factor behind a defense that was only average in Big East play. True and true. That being said, I’m beginning to wonder whether Jim Calhoun‘s team simply doesn’t sweat opponents’ offensive rebounds. They know Hasheem Thabeet will swat away any put-backs anyway. At least that’s how it played out yesterday. The Huskies’ numbers were again weak on the defensive glass but it mattered not one whit, as Thabeet recorded a gaudy seven blocks (to go with a 19-14 dub-dub on 8-of-11 shooting) and the Hurricanes shot an abysmal 34 percent on their twos.

And yet if you saw this game there were a few incredibly impressive twos from the ‘Canes, weren’t there? I’m thinking of that sudden and spectacular dunk the 6-8 Dwayne Collins inflicted on Thabeet–not on a break, either, but off a good old-fashioned Pete Newell back-to-the-basket post move. (Thabeet appears to prefer some space between himself and his victim. An interesting number to track would be how many blocks he records against his own man versus many he inflicts on his teammates’ men.) Not to be outdone, Jack McClinton lofted the sweetest teardrop yet seen offshore, one that teased and eluded Thabeet, kissed off the glass and went in. Thabeet’s actually something of an evaluative gift to opposing players: if McClinton can make that shot against the Huskies’ shot-blocker, Q.E.D., he can make it in the NBA, a thought that probably wasn’t lost on the passel of pro scouts on hand for this game. Granted McClinton’s line for the game was nothing to write home about (he needed 23 shots to get 27 points) but there were stretches in this contest when he was the best player on a floor crowded with big-name guards.   

Speaking of which, A.J. Price is back from ACL surgery, yes, but it’s a something of a tribute to the senior that he can record a 13-11 dub-dub while nevertheless giving one the sense that he’s not yet really up to speed. No worries for the Huskies there, however. Freshman Kemba Walker‘s up to speed enough for any three guards. Walker’s every bit as fast as advertised but on first blush it would appear he’s also something even more important: fearless. (For one thing Calhoun had him guarding McClinton.) A couple more appearances like this against quality opponents will kick-start pundit speculation on when Walker will crack the starting lineup. I say start, schmart. Calhoun can dole out honorary starts to more veteran players if he wishes. What Walker may yet prove that he merits is more precious than mere showy honorifics: minutes.

Alas, after tonight’s title game against Wisconsin, UConn will effectively disappear for almost a month. Not until the Huskies take the court at Key Arena in Seattle against Gonzaga on December 20 will we again have the chance to measure this team against a worthy foe. Mark the date: Thabeet vs. Austin Daye, certainly the best basketball the suddenly NBA-less Emerald City will see anytime soon. 

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