Despite Distractions, Hasheem Thabeet and Connecticut Are Dominating in the NCAA Tournament

Despite a series of potential distractions, Coach Jim Calhoun, thanks in part to center Hasheem Thabeet, has U-Conn. playing the best basketball in the tournament.
Despite a series of potential distractions, Coach Jim Calhoun, thanks in part to center Hasheem Thabeet, has U-Conn. playing the best basketball in the tournament. (By Chris Carlson -- Associated Press)
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By Michael Wilbon
Friday, March 27, 2009

GLENDALE, Ariz. Hasheem Thabeet has reached the point in his college career when marveling over what he can do has given way to skepticism over what he cannot.

The NCAA tournament, especially when play reaches the round of 16, usually belongs to the game's best guards. But Thursday night, Connecticut's Thabeet reminded his teammates, Purdue and those of us intent on finding holes in his game that the big man isn't to be trifled with.

With his best shooters, A.J. Price and Jeff Adrien, harassed into 8-for-28 shooting, Thabeet did the things that make coaches lose their minds over a kid whose ability and skill is stretched over a frame that stands 7 feet 3.

He made 6 of 7 shots, scored 15 points, grabbed 15 rebounds, blocked 4 shots, altered and discouraged twice that many. Purdue isn't half-bad, but the Boilermakers couldn't solve the junior from Tanzania, a kid the NBA scouts (and there were more than a few in attendance) are still trying get a handle on.

Through three rounds, U-Conn. is the most impressive team in the NCAA tournament. The Huskies had to start the tournament coming off the disappointment of a six-overtime loss to Syracuse in the Big East tournament. A week later, on the eve of the first round of the NCAAs, their coach, Jim Calhoun, unexpectedly spent the night in a Philadelphia hospital and missed the opener. A week later, reported that U-Conn. broke NCAA rules when it recruited a kid named Nate Miles, who was expelled from school in October before he could play or even practice with the team. The NCAA is now investigating.

And all this comes in the aftermath of a season-ending knee injury to Potomac's Jerome Dyson, one of the team's best all-around players. His absence from the lineup was said to be a season-killer, in terms of reaching the Final Four.

Yet even with all this weighing down U-Conn., the Huskies have rolled right through three games. They won the first two games by an average of 41 points and never trailed Purdue after jumping to an 8-0 lead. Football coaches would call these things, especially the recruiting violations investigation, a distraction. U-Conn. throws a chip on its shoulder and takes out the next opponent.

Calhoun said afterward: "Obviously, I'm not upset. Sometimes you are supposed to be upset about things, and I'm more than happy about the way our team played."

Calhoun was referring, of course, to the alleged recruiting violations.

Pardon me for having a difficult time getting worked up about an investigation into text messaging and agents. Once upon a time it used to be that schools got into trouble because a booster gave some recruit a car. Now it's agents developing relationships with players when they're in high school, stashing players at colleges for a year so that nobody else can touch them and then signing them, and communicating with the schools through -- and I love this concept -- a "bat phone."

Seriously, this is how it works. The NCAA prohibits schools from contacting a recruit more than once a month during his junior year. But if somebody at the school has a "bat phone" that isn't in any way connected to either the basketball program or the university, there can be constant communication with the agent who communicates with the kid, or actually hands the phone to the kid. (The NCAA, not surprisingly, is too stupid to see the end-around is more harmful than the coaches simply being allowed to have more than one phone call a month.)

In fact, coaches say there is no rule more commonly trashed than the excessive- phone-call rule. Also, I was told Thursday night by multiple sources with direct recruiting knowledge that these agents are unavoidable and they're getting hold of the best players during the summers of ninth and 10th grades. AAU programs are linked with agents. Schools, indirectly, sometimes are, too.

So, this is college basketball's version of steroids. It's everywhere and we're going to be hearing about an increasing number of these investigations. The bet here is U-Conn. will get nothing severe in the way of penalties, if anything at all. And Calhoun has said more than most coaches in similar situations. "At 7 o'clock this morning I talked to [U-Conn. Director of Athletics] Jeff Hathaway, had what I thought was a very fruitful conversation. He said, 'Go get Purdue.' I said, 'Fine.' It lasted about a half-hour. My job today was to come and coach out basketball team, and the kids took care of that."

Thabeet took care of a lot of it by himself, which he hasn't at times during the season even though he towers above other low-post players. Purdue's tallest starter is JaJuan Johnson, who is 6-10. The watchful NBA scouts have, in many cases, downgraded Thabeet, wondering whether he'll be able to hold his own at the next level if he can't dominate smaller collegiate opponents now. Calhoun isn't about to go that far, asking at one point on the walk back to the locker room after the game, "Would you draft him?"

But Calhoun didn't win two NCAA championships by being a passive coach.

"We have been on him a little bit," Calhoun said. "He needed to take the game over [in the Big East tournament]. I have been telling him that, 'You are a great player, an all-American, and you have to play like an all-American.' He played well for us, but . . . today he was special and he made the lane a place nobody wanted to go . . . and conversely he scored at the other end. . . . I think we were up four and we had three seconds left on the shot clock and [Kemba Walker] makes a great pass and [Thabeet] turns and makes that jump hook and gives us a plus-six, and gave us some breathing room.

"It was a terrific performance by our kids. I thought it was a really good performance by Purdue, who quite frankly, ran into one of the best players in America in Hasheem Thabeet. . . . Beyond that, the game might have been different if we had a 'regular' center."

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