Saturday March 7th, 2009

Best not to make too much of any regular season game, even one as anticipated as Saturday's Connecticut-Pittsburgh rematch at the Peterson Events Center in Steeltown. Games like this one will be a distant memory in 12 days when first round NCAA Tournament matchups tip off. Still, some trends were pretty hard to ignore. Five things we learned:

1. Pittsburgh should absolutely get not only a No. 1 seed, but the No. 1 overall seed. And the Panthers should get this distinction even if they get bounced out of the Big East Tournament (after a weird double bye into the quarterfinals). The numbers speak for themselves -- 28-3 overall and 15-3 in the best conference in the country -- but in beating UConn, 70-60, Pitt showed why it is even better than its stats. The Panthers are a terrific blend of steady point guard play (Levance Fields, more on him in point No. 2), perimeter scoring (the waayyyyyyyyy underrated Sam Young, who had 31 points) and reliable inside power (led by DeJuan Blair). The combination makes Pitt almost slump-proof and it's hard to imagine the Panthers falling anytime before Detroit and the Final Four.

2. Levance Fields looks like almost the perfect point guard to pilot a team into the postseason. When he first appeared on national TV on Saturday, Fields was stretching his injured back and viewers were warned that he might not play. His line: 10 points, 12 assists, two turnovers. Imagine if his back wasn't sore. Yet what Field does is less impressive than what he doesn't do. Even in a heated game like Saturday's, Fields forces nothing. Not passes, not shots, not defense. He plays like he's working out alone on Wednesday morning before breakfast. And the rest of the Panthers feed off his cool.

3. Give UConn props for coming back from 14 points down with 8:24 to play. But Jim Calhoun's team misses injured point guard Jerome Dyson more than anyone in the Nutmeg State will admit. A.J. Price is a terrific player and fueled Connecticut's comeback. Kemba Walker is gifted and explosive. But for long stretches of the first and second halves, UConn was stagnant, particularly on defense, exactly the opposite of what is expected from a Calhoun team. Even Bill Raftery picked it up, intoning early in the second half on a UConn possession: "Nobody's moving." And nobody was. Dyson made people move.

4. Rumors of Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet's demise were greatly exaggerated. After getting bullied by Blair into a five-point no-show in Hartford on Feb. 16, Thabeet did not back down on Saturday, with 14 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks. Critics will dog his scoreless second half, but with UConn in scramble mode, the game became Price's. Thabeet kept competing. He will be a major problem for tournament opponents unfamiliar with his length and timing. Yet you've got to say that Thabeet was aided by the game-within-the-game, as Jim Burr's officiating crew called a tighter game than the one that was played in Hartford. Blair went to the bench in both halves with foul trouble, and that's something Pitt will need to avoid in the tournament.

5. There's no question we saw two No. 1 seeds in Pittsburgh. North Carolina will surely be the third. Now the question becomes whether Oklahoma -- limping to the finish line even with Blake Griffin back -- can hold onto the final top seed or if Louisville gets it and makes the Big East the first conference in history to get three No. 1 seeds. If the Cardinals beat West Virginia Saturday night in Morgantown, they will win the regular season title in a conference where two other teams are No. 1 seeds. Rick Pitino's team beat Pittsburgh and lost to Connecticut and comes into the West Virginia game with a six-game winning streak. They are the opponent that nobody wants play. My thinking: Unless Oklahoma wins the Big 12 Tournament, and if Louisville reaches the Big East Final, the Cardinals are a No. 1 seed. Shades of '85.

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