TAMPA, Fla. (AP)—San Diego coach Bill Grier came up with a couple of ways to prepare for 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet.
“We had one of our kids get on the shoulders of another one of our kids and practice all week, then we held brooms up all around,” Grier said Thursday.
He was joking.
But his ideas may not have been too far fetched. The 13th-seeded Toreros (21-13) haven’t faced anyone with Thabeet’s size and shot-blocking ability—a major concern heading into Friday’s first-round NCAA tournament game against No. 4 seeded Connecticut (24-8) in the West Region.
Thabeet ranks second in the nation with 143 blocks. Averaging 4.5 blocks a game this season, the 263-pound sophomore from Tanzania broke Alonzo Mourning’s single-season Big East record of 93 blocks set in 1992 and was named the conference’s defensive player of the year.
When he accepted the award at the Big East banquet, clips of his blocks played on a big screen—a glaring flashback for all his victims sitting in the room. Thabeet’s ensuing speech included a line thanking his teammates for allowing opponents to penetrate so he could swat so many shots.
“That’s part of what I do,” Thabeet said. “But it’s not like I have to block everything for the team to win. I’m a small part of the team defense.”
Most would disagree. Even coach Jim Calhoun lauded his post player for UConn’s success.
“We would not be sitting here today with 24 wins without him,” Calhoun said. “He’s a factor even if he doesn’t block his shot. If he gets there and blocks a couple, you’re going to be very careful. If you try to shoot a second one, then you’re very competitive. You try to shoot the third one, then (you’re) very stupid. … He can change a game.”
Big men have made a big impact in the NCAA tournament the last two years.
Florida’s Al Horford and Joakim Noah swatted some shots and altered many others at one end, then forced teams to collapse so much that it often created wide-open 3-pointers for their teammates. With Horford and Noah leading the way, the Gators became the first team in 15 years to repeat as national champions.
Throw in Ohio State’s Greg Oden and Georgetown’s Roy Hibbert, and centers were the center of attention in last year’s Final Four.
Thabeet took notice.
“It does change the game a lot, when centers can block shots, run the floor, pass the ball, rebound and score,” he said.
Thabeet is averaging 10.4 points and 7.9 rebounds, and shooting 60 percent from the field and 70 percent from the free throw line.
Not bad for someone who’s been playing basketball for just five years. He grew up playing soccer in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, then turned to hoops at age 15. At 6-8 and still growing, friends suggested he try basketball, which would allow him to get a college education in the United States.
He searched the Internet, contacted a few small colleges and ended up at Cypress Christian School in Houston.
Although he was considered a project coming out of high school, he had offers from Louisville, Cincinnati and UConn. He chose the Huskies in hopes of following in the footsteps of some of the school’s top shot-blockers like Donyell Marshall, Emeka Okafor, Josh Boone and Hilton Armstrong.
Thabeet averaged 6.2 points and 6.4 rebounds as a freshman and probably could have entered the NBA draft a year ago. But he decided to return for at least another year—and another shot at getting the Huskies back to the NCAA tournament.
They’re there now—and creating matchup problems for San Diego, an 11 1/2 -point underdog whose tallest starter is 7 inches shorter than Thabeet.
“He’s a great shot blocker,” Grier said. “You see some teams on film keep trying to challenge him, and he keeps blocking shots. … We have to be smart about it, but at the same time, we can’t play in fear of him.”