Preview & Prediction: By Raphielle Johnson
The end result of Saturday’s rematch between top-ranked Connecticut (27-2, 15-2 Big East) and #4 Pittsburgh (27-3, 14-3) will give us an answer as to who will be the top seed in the upcoming Big East Tournament. But there could also be an answer in regards to a one seed in the NCAA Tournament, with both the Huskies and Panthers possessing resumes worthy of such an honor. Pitt will go into this game with a banged-up Levance Fields (10.9 ppg, 7.5 apg), who suffered a bruised back in their win over Marquette Wednesday night. According to head coach Jamie Dixon the savvy floor general from Brooklyn would have been unable to play had the game been Thursday night. But Fields is tough, and given what’s at stake it would be a shock if he weren’t on the floor for his final game at the Petersen Events Center.
The first meeting was just over three weeks ago, with the Panthers winning 76-68 at the XL Center on the strength of one of the season’s best individual efforts. DeJuan Blair (15.9 ppg, 12.6 rpg), who grew up just down the street from the Pittsburgh campus, dominated his individual battle with Hasheem Thabeet to the tune of 22 points and 23 rebounds. Thabeet (13.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 4.5 bpg), who did not rise to the challenge physically, fouled out after twenty-three minutes with five points, four rebounds and two blocks. To be fair Hasheem did miss some time due to an elbow injury suffered in the first half, but when he was on the floor Blair took the battle right to him and he didn’t respond well. The 7-3 big man from Tanzania mentioned after that game that he’d be ready for the rematch; he’d better be if the Huskies are to finish the regular season undefeated on the road.
Two players who tend to slide under the radar nationally when discussing these two teams are a pair of seniors: Pitt’s Sam Young (18.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and Connecticut’s Jeff Adrien (13.8 ppg, 10.0 rpg). You could argue that Young is the toughest matchup of any player in the Big East, a guy whose athleticism makes him extremely tough to stop when combined with a decent perimeter shot and the best shot fake in college basketball. Expect the Huskies to give that assignment to junior Stanley Robinson, who has to be a consistent factor from the start against the Panthers. Adrien, who looks to stand a bit shorter than his listed height of 6-7, is an absolute warrior for Jim Calhoun inside. Like many of the better undersized big men that have played college basketball in recent years he understands angles, which can make up for that lack in stature.
In the backcourt the Fields injury will receive a lot of attention and rightfully so. While freshman Ashton Gibbs can come in and spell Levance for a few minutes, the senior is absolutely indispensible. His shooting percentages aren’t the most impressive but when it’s winning time Mr. Fields is right there to take (and make) the big shot. He shut the door in the first meeting, scoring all ten of his points in the game’s final three minutes (3:09 to be exact). Connecticut senior A.J. Price (13.1 ppg, 4.6 apg) can also get the job done at the point, but don’t be surprised if the defensive matchup the Huskies choose to go with is senior Craig Austrie with Price guarding Jermaine Dixon.
Freshman Kemba Walker provides energy off the bench, but even with the increased use of Scott Haralson this may be the afternoon that the true effect of Jerome Dyson’s injury (and resulting lack of depth) comes to the forefront. Pittsburgh has a number of options that they can turn to on the bench. Brad Wanamaker and Gibbs, who ranks second in the Big East in three-point percentage, handle the backcourt while Gilbert Brown is an athletic swingman who can get to the rim and finish. Whichever bench gains the upper hand will go a long way in determining the winner, especially given what can happen to both teams when their big men get into foul trouble.
Despite the recent history of Connecticut (no Big East Tournament wins since 2004) this game has been the “big game” rivalry of the Big East this decade. Just about every time the Huskies and Panthers get together there’s something on the line, and Saturday will be no different. Both teams are among the best defensively in the Big East, and they’re also near the top of the conference in offensive percentage categories as well (ranking second and third respectively in both field goal and three-point percentage). The Panthers are undefeated at home; Connecticut hasn’t lost on the road. What gives? If you remember Coach Calhoun’s comments following the first meeting regarding the physicality then you may realize that he was planting a seed in the minds of the officials for the rematch. Combining that with the status of Fields’ back, look for Connecticut to steal one late in front of the “Oakland Zoo”.
Winner: Connecticut Margin: 1-4 pts.
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About Raphielle Johnson
College sports has always been a source of excitement for Raphielle Johnson, be it through watching, writing, or taking a shot in the dark and walking onto a college football team just to live the life (Arizona Football, 2001). Raphielle is the assistant editor, providing his own work in addition to helping out with the site operations. When not writing for CHN, you can usually find him in front of a television set watching one of many pay-per-view sports packages that he owns. He can be followed at twitter.com/raphiellej.
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