UConn’s Thabeet to challenge Marquette
Under then-coach Tom Crean last season, the Golden Eagles practiced with scout team members wearing backpack-like contraptions sprouting long arms that waved back and forth with the pull of a string.
“It’s like a book bag that you strap on and, it’s like, arms go all the way up,” forward Lazar Hayward said. “I think they can strap some of those on and it’ll be like the UConn lineup. I haven’t seen those since last year, so I don’t know.”
First-year Golden Eagles coach Buzz Williams credits former Marquette assistant Bennie Seltzer for inventing the device. But noting that he’s “not nearly as creative” as Crean, Williams says he’s leaving them in the closet this year.
“We’ll do the same thing we always do,” Williams said.
As strong as No. 8 Marquette is on the perimeter, the Golden Eagles usually give away a few inches inside to their opponents. Marquette lacks a true center, starting Hayward — who is listed at 6-6, but that might be a stretch — and 6-8 Dwight Burke at forward.
So far, the Golden Eagles have been able to make up for their size deficiencies. But No. 2 Connecticut’s front line of Thabeet, 6-9 Stanley Robinson and 6-7 Jeff Adrien present what might be literally their biggest test so far.
Thabeet and Adrien each average 10-plus rebounds per game, and Thabeet has 118 blocked shots this season.
Thabeet had six blocks in Marquette’s 89-73 loss at Connecticut last season — and Hayward said Thabeet has improved significantly since then, becoming less susceptible to ball fakes.
But Hayward said the Golden Eagles can’t make too much out of the matchup.
“I don’t think you can be hesitant at all of him, because if you come into the game nervous, then he has you beat already,” Hayward said. “You know he’s there already, and all you can do is attack him and hope for the best.”
Jerel McNeal’s plan? Take it right at Thabeet.
McNeal said he’ll drive the lane and try to draw contact, hoping to create room for his shot or go to the foul line.
“He’s a big-time intimidator, but like I said, we’ve just got to play our game,” McNeal said. “We can’t change the way we play. Where we’re best is getting to the basket. We know he’ll be down there waiting for us. It’s a challenge we’re looking forward to.”
Thabeet might be just as tough to handle when Connecticut has the ball. He’s progressing as an offensive player, particularly in the wake of a season-ending knee injury to guard Jerome Dyson. Thabeet has scored 20-plus points in two of the Huskies’ past three games.
As always, Marquette will try to play good defense on the perimeter in hopes of keeping Connecticut’s guards from delivering the ball to Thabeet down low.
“He’s a good player,” McNeal said. “He’s a really big player. But as far as denying the ball, we’ve got to play him like any other post player in this league that can get the ball on the low block and score.”
Williams said the Golden Eagles will have to come up with the same kind of effort they have against the Big East’s other front-line big men, including Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody and Pittsburgh’s DeJuan Blair.
“I’ve known Hasheem since he came to the states, and he’s a really good player,” Williams said. “I think he’ll play for a long, long time in the NBA. But whether it’s Hasheem or Luke Harangody or any of these other potential pros that are in our league, we’re still going to throw Dwight Burke out there and we’ll play as hard as we can.”