Connecticut's Thabeet big obstacle for Missouri

Friday, March 27, 2009 | 5:44 p.m. CDT; updated 12:17 a.m. CDT, Saturday, March 28, 2009
Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet laughs during media day interview session on Friday. Thabeet was responding to teammate Stanley Robinson's comment about Thabeet repeating the same thing over-and-over again.

GLENDALE, Ariz. —  Missouri guard J.T. Tiller had no problem slashing his way inside for a career-high 23 points in Thursday night’s 102-91 victory against Memphis in the NCAA West Regional semifinals.

With 7-foot-3 Big East Defensive Player of the Year Hasheem Thabeet guarding the rim in Saturday night's regional final against Connecticut, things might be a little different.

Saturday's Elite Eight game

Missouri (31-6)
vs. Connecticut (30-4)
WHEN: 3:40 p.m.
WHERE: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale Ariz.
TV: KRCG/Channel 13
RADIO: KFRU/1400, KBXR/102.3 FM

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“I don’t know if the driving’s going to be harder,” Tiller said. “It’s just the layups that might be a little tougher.”

That’s because Thabeet, a second-team All-American according to three publications, is second in the country in blocked shots with 4.4 per game. He stands at least 6 inches taller than every player on Missouri’s roster, so the Tigers will be doing their best to keep him out of the lane against their attacking style.

“I think the biggest key is we’ve got to get that big beast to run,” senior DeMarre Carroll said. “We’ve got to get him up and down the court. Me and Leo (Lyons) are versatile big men so hopefully we can get him running up and down the court and fatigue can be a big factor in this game.”

When Thabeet is in the game, he does more than just block shots defensively. In the Huskies victory Thursday afternoon, several Purdue players drove into the lane and put considerably more arc on their layups than they would have without the presence of the big man from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Thabeet played 36 of 40 minutes on Thursday, but when he wasn’t in the game, the lane seemed more open for drives from the Boilermakers.

“With him off the floor, you’re definitely going to go up more aggressive than you would when he’s on the floor,” Missouri freshman Miguel Paul said. “We just can’t be scared of him, we’ve got to attack him.”

Most teams this season have tried to take Thabeet out to the perimeter, with varying levels of success. The Tigers will employ the same strategy, but their forwards might be better-equipped to move around the taller Huskies.

Carroll and Lyons, who score a combined 31.3 points per game, were the second-highest scoring pair of forwards in the Big 12 Conference behind Blake and Taylor Griffin of Oklahoma. Carroll and Lyons have showed some prowess on the perimeter, and Carroll has even made 14 three-pointers this season.

Missouri has faced some talented big men this season, including Blake Griffin, the heavy favorite for National Player of the Year. Lyons and Carroll said they’ve learned from all of those matchups and will be prepared for their next challenge.

“I don’t think he compares to any of them,” Lyons said. “None of them is quite as long as him, as tall as him. But he is a defensive force. We are going to try to turn the offense to another level and turn our speed up to another level.”

As usual, Missouri wants to play a faster game than its opponent. Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun and his players pointed to their 68-51 win at Louisville in February as evidence that they can dictate tempo against a team that likes to push the basketball.

"I think we have, obviously an advantage inside with our size," Connecticut guard A.J. Price said. "We would be foolish not to slow the game down at times and use that to our advantage."

On the defensive side, Lyons and Carroll will likely get some help in stopping Thabeet and Connecticut’s other forwards, Jeff Adrien and Stanley Robinson, who played against Carroll in high school. As usual, Anderson said his team will be throwing plenty of defensive looks at the Huskies throughout the game.

“Whether it be doubling it up, singles, we got to run some things at those guys to disrupt what they want to do,” Anderson said. “We got to keep them off the boards. I think that will be key.”

As seniors, Carroll and Lyons are one loss away from the end of their Missouri careers. Thabeet is projected to go as high as No. 2 in June’s NBA draft, so it’s likely the junior will forgo his senior season.

“That just makes you want to go out there and play even harder,” Lyons said. “A sense of urgency kicked in. Nobody wants to be done right now. A lot of our guys are still hungry and want to keep playing.”

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