College basketball is all about matchups.
While North Carolina is the first unanimous preseason No. 1 in the history of the Associated Press poll, it doesn’t match up particularly well with burgeoning Big East behemoth Connecticut.
The Huskies must answer more minor questions than a seasoned North Carolina bunch that finished 36-3 last season en route to the Final Four. But Connecticut is the one team the Tar Heels don’t want to face in the tournament.
No team in the nation has more answers for North Carolina’s three trump cards - Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and transition excellence - than the Huskies.
Two years in a row, North Carolina has bowed out in the NCAA tournament because of its relative lack of frontcourt height and depth. Two seasons ago, Georgetown dropped the Tar Heels in overtime of the East Region final, largely because the Hoyas wore down the Tar Heels’ frontcourt.
Last season, Kansas blasted an even more height-challenged group of Tar Heels in the Final Four. A classic pivot “tweener” by NBA standards, Hansbrough (6-foot-9 and 250 pounds) played valiantly (17 points, nine rebounds) but received little help from 6-8, 245-pound power forward Deon Thompson and was eventually swallowed up by the Jayhawks’ interior presence.
Assuming junior swingman Stanley Robinson rejoins the team after the first semester as expected, Connecticut’s starting frontcourt will be more imposing than the groups responsible for those recent North Carolina ousters.
“I was sitting in the third row [at the Final Four], and at one point Hansbrough turned around and saw Cole Aldrich at 7feet and Darrell Arthur with that wingspan, and all of a sudden he wasn’t so dominant in the post,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “If you play Connecticut, he’s going to turn around at 6-9 and see Hasheem Thabeet standing there at 7-3. So he’s giving away half a foot to the premier shot-blocker in America.
“Then they’ve got Jeff Adrien and his wide body over there banging on you. Robinson’s swooping around. [Coach Jim] Calhoun has three more monsters on his bench. And suddenly Hansbrough is in a different world. With all due respect to Carolina - because I think they have a fabulous team and a good chance to win the national title - Connecticut is a different animal.”
It all starts with Thabeet, the Tanzanian sensation who made the transition from intriguing project to NBA lottery lock as a sophomore last season, averaging 10.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.5 blocks.
“Nobody’s better than me, only more experienced,” Thabeet said in an interview with ESPN the Magazine. “I played [Notre Dame’s Luke] Harangody, and he was not tough. Tyler Hansbrough? I don’t see nothing.”
An imprudent and arrogant assessment? Perhaps, but Calhoun agrees.
“I fully expect Hasheem to be the most dominating player in America,” Calhoun said. “When I say that, I mean his total impact on both ends of the floor - scoring, rebounding, defending, blocking and altering shots.”
In like manner to Hansbrough, Thabeet is Connecticut’s cornerstone. But balance and experience make the Huskies a serious threat to the Tar Heels.
Adrien returns as the team’s unquestioned captain after leading the Huskies in scoring (14.8) and rebounding (9.1) as a junior last season. Currently serving a one-semester academic suspension, Robinson (10.4 points, 6.5 rebounds) is a prototypical NBA wing. Junior guard Jerome Dyson (12.5 points) is one of the Big East’s top marksmen. And Connecticut boasts a pair of speedsters at the point in senior A.J. Price (14.5 points, 5.8 assists) and freshman Kemba Walker.
The result is a team that, like North Carolina, returns its top six scorers, loves to run, features an All-American pivot and adds two blue-chip freshman expected to contribute. Quite simply, Connecticut is Carolina North - only super-sized. And the twice-burned Tar Heels can attest to the fact that, come late March and April, size does matter.
“We’re not there yet,” Calhoun said when asked whether the Huskies merit No. 1 consideration. “We have to play eight games without Stanley Robinson and [freshman forward] Ater Majok. A.J. Price is coming off a knee surgery. And we definitely have to shoot the ball better from the perimeter than we did last year.
“So there are some concerns - no doubt. But if everything comes together like I think it can, we could do some exciting things.”