Preview & Prediction: By Jeff Borzello
Every week for the past month, it seems that there is a game matching up two of the top teams in the country. There was Louisville vs. Connecticut, Duke and North Carolina, as well as several other big-name battles in the mix. This week, it is time for the top two teams in the Big East, Connecticut and Pittsburgh, to battle for conference supremacy. #4 Pittsburgh (23-2, 10-2) has won five in a row, although four of them came at home and the lone road win was at DePaul. Still, each of them was by at least 11 points and Pitt reached at least 85 points in four of them. The Panthers started the season with 15 straight wins before losing two of their next four. Pitt has the No. 1 RPI in the country, and owns wins over Florida State, Syracuse, West Virginia (twice), Georgetown and Siena. On the other side, #1 Connecticut (24-1, 12-1) has just one loss on the season, a home defeat to Georgetown in the Big East opener. They started the season 11-0 before the loss to the Hoyas, and have won 13 consecutively since then. The Huskies have 16 wins over teams ranked in the top-100 of the RPI, including Louisville, Villanova, Gonzaga, West Virginia and Syracuse. They are on a roll lately, as evidenced by the fact that each of their 13 wins in a row has come by at least six points and seven have been by double-figures.
Like in years past, Pittsburgh is a rugged defensive team that is difficult to play against. However, this season, the Panthers are much better offensively, and are capable of winning games with their scoring if necessary. In fact, according to Ken Pomeroy, Pitt is the most efficient offensive team in the country. It all starts with point guard Levance Fields, an excellent leader who handles the ball well and doesn’t turn it over. He has an outrageous 49 assists over his past four games, good enough for over 12.5 per contest. The frontcourt combo of Sam Young and DeJuan Blair do most of the offensive damage. Young is an excellent athlete who has the best pump-fake in college basketball, while Blair is a workhorse down low and the best offensive rebounder in the country. Tyrell Biggs is a solid player up front, while Jermaine Dixon is a glue guy that rounds out the starting lineup. Off the bench, Brad Wanamaker is a gunner and Gilbert Brown is versatile.
Connecticut ranks near the top of the nation in several statistical categories, and the Huskies are also the only team to rank in the top-15 in both offense and defense, according to Pomeroy. UConn is fourth in rebound margin, second in blocked shots and seventh in field-goal percentage defense – and it commits the least amount of fouls in the country. The star of this team has been Hasheem Thabeet, who is really coming on strong lately and will likely be an All-American. He is averaging 15.8 points, 14.0 rebounds and 7.2 blocks over the past five games. Jeff Adrien also averages a double-double per game down low. Without Jerome Dyson, who is likely out for the year with a knee injury, A.J. Price will have to take on more of a scoring role. He is averaging almost 16 points per game in his past nine games, though. Freshman speedster Kemba Walker or veteran Craig Austrie will start in Dyson’s place. Stanley Robinson is a tough match-up on the wing.
Always one of the best games of the year, Connecticut and Pittsburgh are two terrific defensive teams that love to play physical and mix it up in the paint. Both teams have excellent frontcourts, with UConn led by Thabeet and Adrien and Pitt countering with Blair and Young. Price and Fields are veteran guards, while Austrie has seemingly been around forever. The two teams are evenly matched. The key for Pittsburgh will be its ability to match-up with Connecticut’s frontcourt. Blair is 6-7, Biggs 6-8 and Young 6-6, while Thabeet is 7-3, Adrien 6-7 and Robinson 6-9. Blair is excellent on the glass, but he hasn’t faced anyone like Thabeet yet this year. Blair needs to stay out of foul trouble, as Pitt struggles mightily (ie, the WVU game last week) with him out of the game. On the other side, Connecticut needs to contain Fields. He is not much of a scorer, but he is an outstanding playmaker and finds open teammates. Dyson is their usual lockdown perimeter defender, but with him out, one of the other guards will have to step up and defend Fields. Furthermore, the Huskies will have to knock down some jumpers. Pittsburgh will give the UConn guards opportunities to hit perimeter shots because they have to double down low, so Price and co. will have to make them. In the end, the homecourt advantage for Connecticut as well as their superior size inside will be the difference. It should be a fantastic game, though, so take a break from “Gossip Girl” and tune in. Wait, what?
WINNER: Connecticut MARGIN: 4-6
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About Jeff Borzello
National College Basketball
Jeff Borzello is a freelance writer who also runs and writes his own blog, March Madness All Season. During the season, Jeff has a weekly appearance on ESPN Radio 1300 in Baltimore and has appeared on AOL Sports Radio and CFRC Sports.. He constantly outdoes the "experts" in his projected brackets and also provides analysis and insight on every conference and team in the country. His favorite teams are Connecticut and Hofstra, showing love to both majors and mid-majors at the same time--indicative of his columns. Jeff is originally from Long Island, NY.