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Big East Notebook

February 4, 2008 Conference Notes No Comments

Big East Conference Notebook

by Zach Smart

HARTFORD – Apparently, Jerome Dyson’s 14.3 points per game-as well as his hounding defense, set three-pointers, quick slashes to the bucket and acrobatic, rim-ringing dunks- haven’t been sorely missed by the Connecticut men’s basketball team.

Forget, for a moment, the pre-Superbowl madness that’s leaving the northeast region completely split.

UConn has now reeled off five straight victories – three against nationally ranked opponents – since their standout sophomore guard was issued a suspension following an alcohol-related incident also involving guard Doug Wiggins (who was reinstated), on Jan. 24.

A.J. Price scored 21 points, hitting crucial shots down the stretch, and UConn gutted out a 60-53 victory in a supreme dogfight over Pittsburgh before 16,294 at the XL Center Saturday. Jeff Adrien added 14 points, six boards, and four blocks, despite being a bit too revved up in the Huskies’ sluggish first half.

“You look at the tape of the game, it will be in black and white,” said Jim Calhoun, the eccentric, longtime Huskies coach. “Because it was much more of a Big East game that I kind of was weaned on when I first came to this league. Everybody puts the gloves on. Well, its 12 rounds now, it used to be 15 rounds. Last man standing, and very simply we were (today). It was such a tough, physical basketball game.”

Through the meat of their non-conference slate, UConn starved for a signature victory. Now the Huskies have been upgraded to the first-class district of one of the most competitive conferences in college basketball. The triumph bolsters the Huskies (16-5, 6-3 Big East) to a third-place logjam with Marquette, the team they stamped an 89-73 victory on to kick-start this mind-boggling five-game win streak.

The Huskies were able to overcome a double-double from the Panthers’ DeJuan Blair. The behemoth freshman scored 13 points and ripped down 13 boards, nine on the offensive glass. Down the stretch, however, the Panthers had trouble with the Huskies’ frontcourt, namely 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet, who finished with a game-high five blocks. The taller, physically superior Huskies altered shots during the back-and-forth battle. No block was more impressive Thabeet’s eye-popping, two-handed pluck of Gilbert Brown’s baseline drive in the second half.

Craig Austrie, whose role has enhanced significantly in Dyson’s absence, scored 13 points and connected on timely three-pointers. Austrie, who has played second and third fiddle to other guards throughout his time as a Husky (and had been playing around 10-12 minutes a game prior to the Dyson saga), was lauded by his coach for stepping up during crucial transitions.

“I’m really happy to talk about Craig Austrie, a guy who has been through an awful lot in this program,” said Calhoun. “He’s always been ‘the other guy.’ He wasn’t ‘the other guy’ tonight.”

For Price, the Huskies’ catalyst all season, his coach’s words resonated.

“He (Austrie) has been stepping up during this whole win streak. He helps me out when he goes to the one, at times, and gets me off the ball. He’s been playing huge for us, and I’m just happy to death for him. Hopefully we can continue to keep this up.”

The Huskies, whose foul shooting woes broke new grounds during last season’s 6-10 Big East bungle, continued to be efficient from the line this year. They shot freebies at an 85.7 percent-clip, going 18-for-21.

Price was once again the answer for UConn.

With around 1:10 remaining, Price took the ball at the top of the key and banged it between his legs before losing Brown off the dribble. The point guard then elevated to the cup and kissed one off the glass, giving UConn a 56-53 edge it wouldn’t squander.

“Coach told me to run the play, primarily,” explained Price. “If it doesn’t work, he wants me with the ball at the end of the clock. That’s the situation that was at hand, and I just tried to make a play.”

That he did. Calhoun saw the shot as another sign of his growing leadership. “Big-time players make big-time plays,” he explained. “In my opinion, he’s as good a guard as there is in this league.”

Calhoun has habitually referenced Price as the gem of his 2004 recruiting class, claiming he has all the ingredients to leave a legacy as one of the best guards in program history.

Now Calhoun’s dreams may be thrust to the forefront.

Following a Jamie Dixon timeout, Pittsburgh’s Ronald Ramon’s three-point attempt clanked off the rim. Price hit a pair of free throws to put the game on ice with 37 ticks remaining.

The teams entered the half in a 22-22 deadlock. The Panthers’ tight, physical defense instigated 11 first-half turnovers. They were chewed out by Calhoun, who quipped that he “spoke quietly” about it at the break.

The Panthers shot an abysmal 8-for-29 from the floor, despite jumping out to an early 19-11 lead. The Huskies were secured by an 11-3 closing burst and carried the momentum into the second half.

Forward Sam Young, who is sprouting into one of the top players in the conference, paced the Panthers with 18 points with a flurry of baseline jumpers.


New York State Of Mind: Price, a product of Amityville, N.Y., was reunited with a familiar face in Keith Benjamin, a Mount Vernon native whom he played alongside on the AAU circuit. Price clearly got the better of his counterpart, as Benjamin was held to just five points on 2-for-11 shooting.

Benjamin, glued to the pine for much of the past three seasons, was thrust into a starting role after the Panthers lost swingman Mike Cook (torn ACL) and Levance Fields (fractured left foot), the latter another New York-bred point guard who Calhoun pegs as the “heart and soul” of the Panthers. Price admitted that playing against guys like Benjamin and Ronald Ramon, who has shifted to point guard in Fields’ absence, gives him some extra juice.

“Whenever I see anybody from New York that I came up playing against, I know that mentally I have an advantage over them almost,” said the junior point guard. “I just try to use that to my advantage and get in their head a little bit.”

Price scored 1,394 career-points while leading his team to three consecutive Long Island Championships during a storied stay at Amityville High.

The Team Tha-Beet: The potential of the ultra-long Thabeet has finally cracked the surface this season. It made for a hard afternoon on Young, who was just 7-for-21 from the field.

“He’s a good player as far as blocking people and forcing (people out the lane),” said the junior forward. “I tried not to let it affect the way I shoot, but after they (UConn’s frontcourt) block a couple, you kind of have to. They kind of throw you off.”

Thabeet met his match, however, in Blair, a 6-foot-7, 265-pound homegrown product who has made an immediate impact this season. How was Blair able to swallow rebounds over the much taller UConn frontline?

“Just try to get position, get position on Thabeet and just work, you know?” said the freshman forward. “I try to go after every board. He (Thabeet) is a big dude, but I just kept my hands up. With my good hands and IQ, I know when it’s coming off the rim and when the box out is coming.”

Don’t Ask: Calhoun was exasperated by the media’s coverage of the incident involving Dyson and Wiggins, who were reportedly caught with bottles of alcohol on campus. Calhoun, who at times has indicated he might be numbering his days as the Huskies’ game general, felt that the reports (which revealed detailed aspects of the situation) added salt to the wound.

“I’d like to have you work as hard on our team, and as you do on your (expletive) job, than you would on trying to do things to hurt young people,” he said earlier in the week in classic, Calhoun lash-out. The state’s winningest coach also did not see eye-to-eye with UConn athletic director Jeff Hathaway, who requested that Dyson and Wiggins be drug tested in the aftermath of the incident and facilitated a release of the results of it.

Wiggins was back in his role off the bench Saturday, logging just 11 minutes. He did not attempt a field goal but scored two points on a pair of free throws.

Mountaineers Await: Pittsburgh, whose stock suddenly plummeted after being cooked by Rutgers at home, faces West Virginia and its arsenal of shooters Thursday. Blair said the onus might fall on Benjamin, Ramon and company to cool down Alex Ruoff (team-high 15 ppg, 3.3 apg), De’Sean Butler, and Darris Nichols. The Mountaineers also have a jumping jack in athletic junior Joe Alexander (14.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg).

“We just have to contest every shot and we’ll be good,” said Blair.

The Mountaineers bounced back from an embarrassing 62-39 loss to Cincinnati on Saturday night with a win at Providence. West Virginia couldn’t hit the side of a Morgantown barn against the Bearcats, shooting the rock at a horrific 20-percent clip – the worst shooting show by a Big East program in roughly 12 years.

Z. Smart’s Power Rankings

1. Georgetown (18-2, 8-1): After posting a 73-61 victory over Seton Hall, the Hoyas could run the table over the ensuing nine games. Roy Hibbert, who couldn’t complete a full push-up when he arrived at G-town, is playing the best ball of his life and with a top-flight supporting cast.
2. Notre Dame (15-4, 5-2): Kyle McAlarney, he of the quick ratchet and high-arcing floaters, has faded from obscurity this season, surfacing as one of the conference’s premier guards. If Luke Harangody can continue to turn in performances like his effort against Michael Beasley and K-State at the Jimmy V Classic in New York, pencil them in.
3. Marquette (16-4, 6-3): Louisville will be a yardstick game for the Golden Eagles, who still need to prove that the UConn rout was a fluke.

One who slipped below the radar: Deonta Vaughn, Cincinnati. The 6-1 sophomore is a scoring machine who’s capable of melting teams from beyond the arc.

Rookie of the Week: Michael Colburn, Rutgers. The half-pint point guard averaged 20 points and four dimes during back-to-back victories over nationally ranked opponents. He’s made his presence felt after a sloth start.

Keep An Eye On: Brian Laing, Seton Hall. The senior forward averaged 22.5 points while snaring 10.5 rebounds during a week that saw the Hall rip off a pair of victories. He had a game-high 24 points against Georgetown Saturday.


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