Monday, February 16, 2009

Q&A With The Courant's Mike Anthony

Welcome to the first guest interview here at OuttaThePahk. With No. 1 UConn taking on No. 4 Pittsburgh at the XL Center tonight -- the first of two meetings to determine the conference regular season champion -- we are joined by Hartford Courant men's writer Mike Anthony to talk about the team and the game.

OuttaThePahk: You have seen both extremes in your years covering the team, including a disastrous 2006-07 and now a legitimate shot at a national championship. How has coach Calhoun adjusted his style with this group as it has matured into a title contender?

Mike Anthony: He's toned it down a bit. He trusts these guys. There was a point early in the season, after a lackluster victory against an overwhelmed team in early December, where he laid into each and every player for long stretches. For the Huskies, it was not a fun night. Upperclassmen were re-introduced to a most difficult side of Calhoun. Freshman met a different man than they had come to know during the recruiting process.

It was all by design. Calhoun wanted this group to understand that he thought it was capable of great things, but that it would take extraordinary effort and focus. He wanted them to know that a difficult road lay ahead and that it would never be easy. Even on a night when the scoreboard would suggest things were, indeed, easy, UConn players endured Calhoun coming down on them -- his way of preparing them for upcoming tests of endurance and character.

Since then, he's been calm - by his standards, anyway. Calhoun is full of fire and he'll never be easy to play for, but the group he's coaching has a better understanding of what he's looking for. He's been through a lot with A.J. Price, Jeff Adrien, Craig Austrie and the rest, and he's learned what they're made of over the last few years. He likes what he sees.

Two years ago, Calhoun was all over them en route to 14 losses. Last season, Calhoun was particularly animated and frustrated early on, but both he and the players found their groove in a 10-game winning streak. That was an us-against-the-world situation, Calhoun's favorite, and I think the Huskies and Calhoun came out of last season with a mutual understanding for each other. This season, expectations are high but Calhoun - again, still animated, still fiery - has a certain calm about him for knowing these players well, knowing what they've been though and knowing what they're capable of.

OTP: Tonight is the first of two matchups with Pittsburgh that will likely decide the regular season title. What do you see as the most critical individual matchup tonight?

MA: The Big guys. Hasheem Thabeet vs. DeJuan Blair. A.J. Price-Levance Fields is critical at the point. But this is a high-profile matchup in the paint between two of the nation's dominant centers. Thabeet is playing better than ever, perhaps better than some people thought he might be capable. He's a shot-blocking, rebounding and scoring machine who suddenly looks like a go-to player on offense. Blair is a bruiser with touch. He'll challenge Thabeet physically more than most players. He'll give up six inches but with throw a shoulder into him, try to out-muscle him. Can Thabeet continue to dominate without fouling? That's the key.

OTP: Thabeet put on an offensive display Saturday unlike any he's had before. Do you sense he wants to shoulder a greater scoring role the rest of the season with Jerome Dyson out?

MA: I don't think Thabeet automatically assumes he has to be a primary scoring option because Jerome is out. I just think his game has continued to evolve to the point where he's given UConn that option. Even when Thabeet was a freshman, UConn wanted to get him more and more touches. Two years later, he's getting better position, finishing some of those touches, passing well from the post and changing the look of the offense just by being an important part of the passing patterns. When he can finish like he did at Seton Hall, watch out. Thabeet wants to be a scoring option, always has. I'm sure every player is thinking they have to pick up the slack a little with Dyson out, but Thabeet becoming a scorer is more the product of three years of growth - muscle, smarts, confidence. He's ready, it seems, to consistently do more than block shots, and that means to the world to UConn.

OTP: How important will freshman Kemba Walker be over the final two months, and does he have the poise to accept a major role come tournament time?

MA: I think so. He's got poise, charisma and, of course, an incredible ability with the ball. He was clearly nervous at times early this season but he appears to have overcome that. He's still a freshman, of course, so I would expect some ups and downs - heck, he wasn't great at Seton Hall in Dyson's first game on the sideline - but I think he'll be an important factor on offense and defense for a team suddenly in need or more speed, toughness and creativity from the guard position.

OTP: Is Jeff Adrien among the most underrated players in the conference? Where would this team be without his contributions, and how would you rate his pro prospects?

MA: Well, I know Calhoun has tremendous appreciation for him and opposing coaches have tremendous respect for him. Is there a more consistent player in the Big East? It would be hard to find one. You know he'll score. You know he'll rebound. You know he'll defend. He's become a great leader. You know he won't be daunted by trying moments or the big stage. He's still, as Calhoun says, the rock for this team. He's irreplaceable.

As for his pro prospects, my initial feelings, which lasted awhile, were always that Jeff, despite his success and capabilities, was good enough to carve out a very successful European career. Now I don't know. Those around him say he's so tough and so stubborn that he's destined to find a spot on an NBA roster. If he winds up in a camp with a team that has the proper roster makeup, I wouldn't put the NBA past him. He's a little short for his position, but otherwise certainly has the body, and he definitely has the work ethic.

OTP: Two months from now, are they sweeping the streets of Hartford after one parade, two, or none?

MA: What, is the women's team good or something? That's what I hear. So I guess they have a shot to win it all. So do the men. Predictions are cheap. I would say that I think UConn has as good a chance as any team in the nation to be playing the best basketball come late March. Winning six in a row ... it's tough. No slip-ups. A tightrope. That's the case for any team. There are a handful of teams out there, at least, that have legitimate hopes for a title and UConn should be in that group. They are in a unique position of having to redefine themselves after the loss of Dyson. But they have a center who suddenly looks all-world, a tremendous senior power forward and a tremendous senior point guard. Those are pretty good pieces to work with. If others step up and fill in the rest, UConn could very well be planning a parade.

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