Connecticut Huskies (24-8) vs. San Diego Toreros (21-13)
When: Friday, 3 p.m.
1. Our Little Baby's All Growns Up! Since the Huskies won their second national championship in 2004, UConn fans haven't had that much to cheer about. In 2004-05, the Huskies couldn't rebound from the loss of Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, sleepwalked through the season and got knocked out by NC State in the second round of the NCAAs. In the 2005-06 Elite Eight, despite a rotation featuring five future NBA draft picks, UConn played the role of Michigan to George Mason's Appalachian State. Last season, after a mass exodus to the NBA, UConn was the youngest team in the country (its roster included five sophomores, eight freshmen and zero upperclassmen), and it showed; the team lost 11 out of its last 15 games and didn't even garner an NIT bid despite winning 17 games. Without any significant changes to the roster, fans were not optimistic that this season would be much different, and this skepticism appeared to be justified by several close early-season losses to ranked teams. But following a loss to Providence on January 17, the young Huskies matured overnight, and proceeded to knock off 10 straight opponents, often in dramatic fashion. Interestingly, eight of those wins came after the program suspended guards Jerome Dyson and Doug Wiggins. (Dyson, who led the team in scoring — and apparently was a big fan of Funyuns and the movie Friday — at the time of his suspension, has struggled since returning in late February.) The team has benefited from the major improvement of 6'2" point guard AJ Price, whose career did not begin until last season after being initially delayed by a brain hemorrhage and then a brain fart (he was involved in a laptop theft). Price has raised his game this year, averaging 15 points and six assists per game. Other standouts include 6'6" junior bruiser Jeff Adrien (15 points and nine rebounds per game) and the Tanzanian Devil, 7'3" sophomore center Hasheem Thabeet (10 points, 8 rebounds and 4.5 blocks per game). Price and Adrien were named to the All-Big East First Team and Thabeet was voted the conference's Defensive Player of the Year.
2. Ain't No Party Like A Block Party. Thanks to Thabeet (as well as Adrien and mercurial 6'9" forward Stanley Robinson), UConn leads the nation in blocks per game (8.8), which the team has now done for seven consecutive seasons. UConn's shot-blocking prowess began with the arrival of Okafor in 2001. In Okafor's three seasons as a Husky, UConn averaged 6.9 blocks in 2001-02, 7.5 in 2002-03, and 8.1 in 2003-04. With an increased emphasis on shot-blocking, the team actually swatted more shots without Okafor, averaging 8.9 blocks in 2004-05 (led by Boone, Gay, Villanueva and Armstrong) and 8.8 in 2005-06 (same crew minus Villanueva). Last season, Thabeet's first as a Husky, UConn averaged 8.6 blocks per game. Due in no small part to its shot-blocking, UConn is holding opponents to 38 percent shooting.
3. You're not the run-of-the-mill kind of asshole, are you, Jimmy? You're a special kind of asshole. UConn's Hall-of-Fame coach Jim Calhoun speaks with a Masshole accent thicker than clam chowder, swears like Bunk Moreland after a long night at Kavanaugh's and has a quicker hook with his players than the clown at the Apollo on Amateur Night. A Lady Byng Trophy winner he's not. But there's one thing he does better than any other college coach in America: develop NBA players. Indeed, UConn has thirteen graduates...er...former players in the NBA — more than any other college program. It's an impressive list: Ray Allen (Celtics), Hilton Armstrong (Hornets), Josh Boone (Nets), Caron Butler (Wizards), Rudy Gay (Grizzlies), Ben Gordon (Bulls), Richard Hamilton (Pistons), Donyell Marshall (Sonics), Emeka Okafor (Bobcats), Kevin Ollie (Sixers), Charlie Villanueva (Bucks), Jake Voskuhl (Bucks), and Marcus Williams (Nets). Calhoun also happens to be a perfect 4-0 in Final Four games and, by virtue of out-coaching Mike Krzyzewski twice in those four games and thus denying Duke two additional national titles, on his deathbed will receive total consciousness. So he's got that going for him, which is nice. — Josh Blosveren
SAN DIEGO TOREROS
1. Taming The Bulldogs. The Toreros may be the least likely team to make the tournament, until you factor in their coach. The big reason is that few expected them to be able to get past Gonzaga in the conference tournament; the Bulldogs having beaten them 13 times in a row. But San Diego is coached by Bill Grier, in his first year with the Toreros after having spent the previous 16 seasons as an assistant at Gonzaga. The Toreros, a No. 13 seed, will meet No. 4 seed UConn in the West Regional; the first time ever that the schools have played each other.
2. Kirstie Alley Approves. The Toreros play in Jenny Craig Pavilion, named for the weight-loss magnate who donated $7 million to build the facility in 1996. It was dedicated in Oct., 2000, and is known to students as the Slim Gym. Jenny Craig Inc. is based in nearby La Jolla, CA. Ironically, the university is also home to the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, named for the wife of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, who has foiled many diets.
3. Seeing Red. No one is going to be able to push around the Toreros; they have one of the heaviest rosters in the tournament. They have six players who weigh in excess of 220 pounds, including freshmen Rob Jones and Josh Miller (both 230), junior forward Gyno Pomare (240) and 6-foot-10 freshman center Nathan Lozeau (280) ... Jones played at Archbishop Riordan in San Francisco, whose league nemesis is Serra High, which produced Tom Brady, Lynn Swann and Barry Bonds ... a Torero is a bullfighter; not exactly a politically correct nickname for a university these days. — Rick Chandler