Despite my alleged status as a surly old man, I actually thought UConn would win this one. (And to dispel any rumors, I do not, in fact, live in a garbage can)
Even without Dyson -- who had surgery today and is officially done for the year -- both teams have similar rosters: Dominant post players, floor leaders who can score in Levance Fields and A.J. Price, benches that aren't too deep and a bunch of complimentary players with similar skills sets.
But two major things went wrong in this one that led to Pitt's 76-68 win over UConn at the Morgue:
1) DeJuan Blair, who may or may not be the great grandson of a grizzly bear, pooed all over Hasheem Thabeet.
And 2) UConn completely fell apart in the final two minutes.
(I promise I'll get optimistic after the jump. But first, the bad)
No. 1 was pretty obvious: Blair, who scored 22 and had 23 rebounds, plays the type of game that Thabeet still can't handle. Blair went right at him -- he actually gave Thabeet a judo flip early in the game -- and muscled his way to the rim. His style put Thabeet into foul trouble and limited the big fella's impact defensively for the first time in what seems like ages.
But No. 2 was perhaps the crippling blow.
With Thabeet hanging out with Donnell Beverly and the rest of the misfit toys on the bench, the Huskies got big shots from Stanley Robinson -- he lives! -- and Kemba Jogger did a great job running the show (more on him later).
But with the game tied at 61 and about two minutes to go, UConn just fell apart.
There had been several defensive lapses earlier in the night, as it seemed like they were so concerned with Blair in the blocks and Thabeet not racking up the fouls that they collapsed down low and left shooters open. But Fields, who had played horribly on offense up to that point (thanks in large part to Kemba's D, Fields finished 2-for-10 from the field), drained two open 3s to give Pitt a six-point lead it would never relinquish.
After Kemba blew the coverage on the first 3, Craig Austrie lost Fields on the next. Pitt ran a pick-and-roll with Fields and Blair at the top of the key and both Austrie and Thabeet collapsed on Blair, leaving Fields with a wide-open look. I know what you're thinking, so I'm just gonna say it: Would Dyson have bit on the roll, too? Probably. Maybe. Who knows. Regardless, it happened at the worst possible time and, overall, too much throughout.
Compounding the problem was the awful shot selection on the other end.
On the ensuing possession after Fields' second 3, Hash decided to take a jumper a few steps inside the foul line with about 15 seconds still left on the shot clock. Which led Jay Bilas to point out that he has no offensive game outside of dunking (If only he knew the time it took to de-Flubber his hands to get to this point). Again, don't wanna harp on one play, but it was just an awful shot on what boils down to perhaps the biggest possession of the game.
Kemba eventually brought it to within four with 1:37 to go, but on the next offensive possession, Stanley went to the line and missed the first of a one-and-one.
The shot kind of sealed UConn's fate,and it was another failed attempt for Stanley to redeem himself.
But I promised to be optimistic, and I only renege on promises 75 percent of the time.
Stanley (8 points and 10 boards) reminded people that he plays basketball and gave Blair a nice shiner, Craig Austrie played well enough that you feel OK with him starting but still miss Dyson just a little bit and Price (18 points, eight assists) showed some flashes of being his former saintly self.
Of course, the most encouraging performance was from Kemba. Whether he be running, walking, jogging or ridding in some type of vehicle, Kemba is exciting to watch. And with 24 mins. tonight, he played perhaps his best game of the season.
He only had 13 points and one assist, but Walker controlled the offense a lot and did a pretty good job of doing it. He looked confident running the show, and if he can continue to progress in that role, he makes the loss of Dyson much easier; Price can play more off the ball (which is what Coach Cal wanted to do at the beginning of the season) and give the offense back a player who can create his own shot and take his defender off the dribble.
But most importantly, his defense was impressive. His size (he's listed favorably at 6-1, 172) will eventually be exploited, but that didn't factor much against fellow midget Fields. Fields tends to shoot poorly on the road (he averages two points lower away from Pittsburgh than his season average of 11.1), but Walker was a big factor in his poor shooting night, especially in the second half.
Overall, the Huskies put up a pretty good fight, and after letting this one sink in, it was encouraging to see that they can still contend with a top-five team without Dyson and with Hasheem providing very little, if anything. I'd like to harp on some underdog quality and say that no one gave them a shot without Dyson, but that's not really the case. As I noted before, both teams are composed similarly, and I think everyone figured this was really a coin flip; UConn was favored, but a lot of that had to do with homecourt advantage, their No. 1 ranking and their 13-game winning streak.
But after looking dominant throughout most of the past two months, the Huskies finally looked beatable. Which was strange, but inevitable. And if you didn't realize how important Thabeet was before, now you know.
Still, the problems at the end of the game were just small issues, but I think they prove my point that this team isn't a national-championship team. They showed that they can hang with a top-five team without Dyson, but had too many stupid mistakes to pull it out. In fact, I don't think they win this one with Dyson.
Maybe I didn't make this clear before, but I think this team is great even without Jerome, and probably still a Top-10 team. But the only way I'll call this season a success is if I see Hasheem cutting down a net without the assistance of a ladder and with me purchasing an overpriced t-shirt to celebrate a feat I had no part in accomplishing.
Despite reckless punctuating, Porter is right: UConn has a shot to win a championship. They confirmed that tonight. And if they get in the right bracket, I could see them getting to the Final Four.
But like I've said before, I still can't see a title. Not with this roster. Not by making mistakes like they did tonight. And after coming into the season ranked No. 2, holding the No. 1 ranking for at least three weeks and likely finishing inside the Top 10, that's just a bit disappointing.
UConn is a damn good team. They're just not a great one. And that's OK. I just really, really wanted to know what it was like to flip a car.
Guess I'll just have to go to West Virginia for grad school.
Wait -- never mind. That's cows.