Creature Vs. Creature: Pitt and UConn Battle for Big East Bragging Rights

Paul SieversAnalyst IMarch 5, 2009

When the top-ranked Connecticut Huskies (27-2, 15-2 Big East) travel to Pittsburgh to face the third-ranked Pitt Panthers (27-3, 14-3 Big East), emotions will be running high on both benches.

The Huskies will have revenge on their minds. Just 17 days ago, Pitt beat the Huskies in Connecticut. Pitt’s 76-68 victory featured as many bruises as baskets, a classic Big East slugfest that saw Pitt as the more physical team. UConn, a program that prides itself on its toughness, will head into the game looking to uphold that reputation.

For Pitt, it will be Senior Day. If DeJuan Blair elects to turn pro at the end of the season, then it will be the last home game for four members of Pitt’s starting five. Even though many of Pitt’s students will have left for spring break, the atmosphere in the Petersen Events Center will be electric as the fans honor the winningest class in school history.

All this and we haven’t even mentioned that the winner of this game will clinch a share of the Big East regular season title and probably lock up a one seed in the NCAA tournament.

Here to break it all down are Paul Sievers and Dan Dinunzio from


Is Pitt/UConn now officially a rivalry or just two very good programs that happen to play in the same conference?

Dan: Both the Huskies and Panthers come into this game regarded as two of the best programs in all of college basketball. It doesn’t have the true Duke vs. North Carolina feel to it, but both of these programs have gotten national attention.

In a conference that is widely considered the toughest in the country, any Big East matchup is a dogfight. With regular season championship and seeding implications, this game is sure to bring even more intensity than usual.


Paul: I certainly agree with Dan that this is not on the level of Duke/UNC. This is not a true rivalry in my book. A rivalry means the two teams circle the date on the calendar each and every year. If Pitt and UConn are average, then nobody gets excited about this game.

Games like Pitt vs. West Virginia and Syracuse vs. Georgetown are big games no matter where the teams are in the standings. To me, those are true rivalries.

That’s not to say this can’t develop into a rivalry. There is certainly some bad blood after that last game. A few more games like the war in Hartford, and then we might have something.


DeJuan Blair won the battle of the big men in the first matchup. Will Hasheem Thabeet get the better of Blair in round two?

Dan: Hasheem Thabeet struggled mightily in the first game against Pittsburgh. This time he’s going to need to raise his game to another level if UConn wants to win. Thabeet is the second leading shot blocker in the country, averaging 4.5 blocks a game. His presence in the middle is the key to the Huskies defense.

It’s not going to be easy going up against DeJuan Blair, a sophomore who plays at a level far beyond his years. Blair is third in the country, averaging 12.7 rebounds a game. His rebounding ability is what makes Pitt a great team instead of a very good one.

Both these big men have NBA caliber skills and are most likely going to be lottery selections in the 2009 draft. It is key that they stay out of foul trouble, or else their teams will be in big trouble.

It’s time Hasheem Thabeet proves he can be a factor on the offensive and defensive ends against elite competition. I believe Thabeet can stay out of foul trouble, and this will be a breakout game for him. I think Thabeet gets the better of Blair this time. 


Paul: Blair did not have the kind of game (22 points, 23 rebounds) he did against Thabeet by accident. I don’t want to take anything away from Thabeet because he’s a great player, but I don’t think he can match up with Blair.

Yes, Thabeet has a huge height advantage, but Blair is much stronger and more skilled offensively. I think Blair will outplay Thabeet again because a shorter, stronger player like Blair is the worst possible matchup for a tall, lanky player like Thabeet.

It’s simply a matter of physics; think of DeJuan Blair as a bulldozer ball and Hasheem Thabeet as a tree. DeJuan will be able to move Thabeet on both ends of the court

Plus, I think Blair is in Thabeet’s head a little bit. Last time they played, Blair tossed Thabeet over his back like a rag doll fighting for one rebound. That play has to be in Hasheem’s head a little bit, doesn’t it?


Aside from Blair/Thabeet, what is the most intriguing matchup in this game?

Dan: Another matchup that is sure to be watched closely involves two special seniors. Pitt’s Levance Fields and UConn’s A.J. Price will square off in a battle of two of the best guards in the Big East. Last time in Connecticut, it was Fields who came through in the clutch, hitting key shots down the stretch.

Price has played brilliantly this year after a devastating knee injury in last year's NCAA Tournament. He’s been shooting lights out from three and has shown he’s capable of taking over a game from a scorer's perspective. Without Jerome Dyson, Price knows he needs to step up his production.


Paul: I have to agree that it’s the point guards, A.J. Price and Levance Fields. Both are New York area kids who have been playing against each other for a while.

Price is the better athlete, the better scorer, and the better defender. A.J. gave Levance fits on both ends of the court last time. Price was able to beat Levance off the bounce with regularity last time, while Levance had trouble getting the ball inside of the three-point line.

Conversely, Levance Fields is the consummate floor general. His assist to turnover ratio is almost four to one, double that of Price. A.J. Price has more individual talent, but Fields makes everyone around him better.

Both players have one thing in common: They both want the ball with the game on the line. In Hartford, Price badly outplayed Fields for 35 minutes. But in the final five Fields hit consecutive three-pointers to ultimately decide the game and further his argument as the most clutch human being on the planet. A.J. Price has an impressive collection of big baskets as well.

If this game is close at the end, look for the point guards to decide the outcome.


UConn will have four extra days of rest, but Pitt has a deeper bench and is playing at home. Which team will have fresher legs at the end of the game?

Dan: At the end of this game it’s key that the starters are on the floor. Both teams have advantages. UConn will be energized by the full week off, and Pitt will be energized by the home crowd.

I think the difference is negligible. After all, it’s March, and these players should be ready to play the best basketball of the season. If they fail, it should be for reasons other than fatigue.


Paul: I agree that it won’t be that big an issue, but I think Pitt has a slight advantage. More important to me than UConn’s extra rest or Pitt’s depth is the home cooking. The Petersen Events Center is not your ordinary home court advantage. Pitt always plays with an extra hop in their step in front of the Oakland Zoo.

Also, I’m not sold on the fact that UConn’s extra rest is a good thing. A.J. Price was shooting lights out, but it's hard to keep that going when you don’t play for a week.


What does this game mean as far as Big East tournament and NCAA seeding?

Dan: It’s clear that Pittsburgh and UConn have two of the finest résumés in the land. They are both worthy of No. 1 seeds. This matchup is psychologically important as we begin March. These teams could very well meet next week in the Big East title game. Hell, this could potentially be a national title preview.

The Final Four is a long way away, but there’s no question these teams have the talent and drive to meet in Detroit. It is important for each team to start their run towards a title with a win on Saturday.


Paul: Big East tournament seeding is not a huge factor here. Both teams wrapped up byes into the quarterfinals finishing in the top four of the conference. I don’t think it matters where you are seeded one through four. No matter what, you’re going to have to beat three really good teams to win the Big East title.

As far as NCAA seeding, the Huskies will definitely lock up a No. 1 seed with a win if they haven’t done so already. UConn has a better résumé at this point.

I think Pitt needs to win to lock up a number one. Pitt might need to win at least one game in the Big East tournament as well.

Even though UConn has the better résumé, I think the Huskies need this game more, just from a purely psychological standpoint. Pitt’s toughness was on full display a few weeks ago in Hartford. I think UConn needs to win to prove to themselves that even without Jerome Dyson, they are as tough as anyone in America.


Prediction Time Gentlemen…

Dan: UConn will win this game because of their ability to score in the paint and defend the glass. Jeff Adrien will get physical with Blair and have a big game. Stanley Robinson will play with the fire he showed against Marquette. Kemba Walker and Craig Austrie will swarm the perimeter defense and drive and dish on offense. If A.J. Price plays like he has played all year long, the Huskies will be in very good shape.

Hasheem Thabeet will be the biggest factor if UConn is victorious. He and the other big men will be able to limit Blair on both ends of the court. Look for them to control the glass, setting up the guards to knock down shots from three.

I believe they will come out and play their best game of the year. This is a statement game for the Huskies, who take pride in defending their No. 1 ranking. They haven’t forgotten the loss to Pittsburgh. I think the Huskies will get redemption and return to winning the big games in March.

UConn 71, Pittsburgh 68 in a game that lives up to the hype.

Paul: I am well aware that the Huskies are undefeated on the road this year, but not only is Pitt undefeated at home, they also haven’t won by fewer than 11 points in any of those contests. Pitt is 114-10 all time at the Petersen Events Center. No, that’s not a typo—that’s a .920 home winning percentage over six seasons!

The only position where UConn has a big advantage is power forward with Jeff Adrian over Tyrell Biggs. I think Pitt matches up very well with UConn. A.J. Price will have a tougher time guarding Levance Fields this time around.

Levance is a much better shooter at home. Jermaine Dixon is not a big scoring threat, but he is a great defender who will limit the impacts of Craig Austrie and Kemba Walker.

Sam Young had 25 against UConn last time out, and there's no way can Stanley Robinson stay with him. Like I mentioned earlier, I like the way DeJuan Blair matches up with Hasheem Thabeet. Pitt did not beat UConn up in Hartford by accident.

Not only do I think the matchups favor Pitt, I also think the emotion of Senior Day carries Pitt through the game. I think Pitt wins and it's not that close. Pitt 82, UConn 70.


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