ST. THOMAS, V.I. -- While I imagine most of you are spending your Saturday afternoon watching to see if the Canes football team will get some help in its quest to still make it to Tampa for the ACC title game, Frank Haith's basketball team is preparing to face No. 2 Connecticut Sunday night. Tipoff will be at 6 p.m. and the game will be available to watch online at www.watchbtihoops.com.
This morning, I got a chance to talk about the Huskies with Coach Haith and Jimmy Graham, who will likely draw the task of defending 7-foot, 3-inch NBA-bound center Hasheem Thabeet most of the night. Here's what they had to say. We'll start with Jimmy.
Q: How is the mood of the team knowing you guys can obviously grab even more attention with a win over the second-ranked team in the country?
A: The mood of the team is real good. It is a big game because it is the No. 2 ranked team in the nation. They are pretty big. I was reading a magazine about [Hasheem] Thabeet about two weeks ago. It's good to face a player like that.
Q: You guys have had some pretty special moments the last couple years, beating No. 5 Duke and the trip to the tournament, but what would beating the No. 2-ranked team in the country do for you?
A: I think this is a big game for us. I think every game for us is a huge game because we want to beat everyone. They are a very good team. But I think playing them early on is going to be very good for us. It's going to test us and show us the kind of team we are.
Q: Who is the biggest guy you've had to defend?
A: I don't know. There was this kid last year, 7-1. But the toughest was Jarvis Barnardo from Misssippi State. He was super long, really tall, another shot blocker just like Thabeet. The biggest thing is you just can't avoid him. You just can't be shy with him. You have to take it to him. He is pretty big. And Jeff Adrien, that kid is a beast. He had 22 and 11 last night. I watched most of the game last night and I'm really going to have to bring a lot of energy and try to lock those two down. I heard they were the best frontcourt in the nation. Now, we get to see how we stack up against it.
Q: Are you guys having fun out here? I heard about the Sky ride and how a few guys were scared?
A: The guy sky ride was scary. That thing was a little wobbly. We've had a little fun. But this trip is kind of like last year. We've really focused on this on being a business trip. Nobody has been out to the beach. Nobody has been out shopping. Everybody has been in bed 10, 11 at night. And we've just been focused on winning and what this tournament and this opportunity is for us. This is a big year for us. And each game is equally as important for us down here.
Q: Things are different than last year. You guys made it the tournament, proved yourselves. Is there not a moment where you sit back and exhale?
A: Never. Now, I'm a senior. We have a bunch of seniors on this team and we don't have a moment to exhale until that final game, hopefully in the NCAA tournament. For me everyday is just focus. Everyday is a workday. I think the whole team has that mentality, still playing with that chip and still trying to prove ourselves. I don't think we've proven anything. Yes, now we have a number. But it's not as high as I want to be. I think each game we're going to come out proving something.
Q: Everyone back home is going to be excited about this game because both of you are ranked, the old Big East rivalry. Can you talk about why this is exciting for you guys?
A: Just the opportunity to play against a top five ranked team in the country. Any time you have a chance to do that, that's a plus. It helps the RPI. It helps everything you're trying to accomplish in terms of the big picture. UConn is a great team, great coach, great players. If you compete in this game, you want to play against the best. And that's what we enjoy in terms of playing in the ACC and this is another opportunity to play against the best one of the best teams in the country.
Q: How about in terms of preparation for the NCAA tournament? Does this game serve as a nice warmup or measuring stick -- even though its more than five months away?
A: I think we face it every night in our league. I think no league is undefeated up until this point. Virginia Tech lost last night on a last second buzzer. It's the first loss in our league and people don't talk about that. But I guarantee you the Pac 10 has lost games, the Big 12 has lost games, Big East lost games. Everybody has lost games. But we've only got one loss in our league and that's on a hail mary shot by Xavier. We face it every night in our conference. I think that's what the great misunderstanding of our league is all about.
Q: You guys have won some big games before obviously, but if you guys win tomorrow night some folks are going to say maybe beating No. 2 UConn is your biggest win. What do you say?
A: I think we've won some really big games since I've been here. I think in terms of a number, I don't know if we've beaten a No. 2 team in the country. Duke was maybe five I think. But there have been some great wins since I've been here. Winning at Florida was a huge win. Winning at Carolina -- I mean Clemson and some other teams have been in the league 50 years and haven't won there. I mean, there's been some big wins in our time. The NCAA Tournament win over Saint Mary's, winning at Creighton (I don't think they've lost one other non-conference loss in that building since then). I think this would be one of our biggest wins. This would be a good win, a great win if we're able to do it. But it's going to be a tall task. We know what we're up against us. Jeff Adrien, Hasheem Thabeet, I mean Kemba Walker is unbelievable as a freshman. [Jerome] Dyson, all those guys are good players and all players I think can play at the next level and that's a great opportunity for our guys to compete against.
Q: Have you guys ever faced a 7-foot, 3-inch center?
A: I don't think so because he's probably the only one in the country. I don't think there's one everynight. I know Hasheem very well, I recruited him. Classy kid. I'm happy for him. He's done well. We were very hot in the recruiting trails for him and I got to know him well and you can just see he's become a more efficient player. His timing is much better than it was. He's shooting the ball much better. He's going to have a bright future at the next level.
Q: It's has to be a huge advantage for UConn when they've got a guy like Thabeet and you've got 6-8 Dwayne Collins and 6-8 Jimmy Graham in the post?
A: It's a huge advantage for them against everybody. I think with a player like that the one mistake you can make is to avoid him because he's going to get you. You got to go right at him and attack him and hopefully our guys can do that. Now, with that said, he's probably going to block some shots. He's averaging four blocks a game. He's going to get some shot blocks and we can't let that deter us.
Q: Their team is loaded with experience. You guys have a ton of experience too. This might be one of the best matchups in the country in terms of guys having played together is it not?
A: No question. They're very seasonal. They've been through it. I watched them last night. They have a sense of confidence about them and a lot of it has to do with personnel, Jeff Adrien, AJ Thomas, Dyson and those guys have been around a long time and Hasheem coming back for another year. They've been around for a lot of games and they know how to win. There's no substitute for that.
Q: Normally, you don't get these type of matchups three games into the season. Is there a benefit to playing them this early in the season?
A: Play 'em early, play 'em late, you just want the opportunity. You can look out in Maui or in the Coaches versus Cancer tournament, everyone was hoping for a Duke-UCLA final. But it didn't work out that way. It's great to have an opportunity to play a team ranked as high is good anytime. The fact we play them early? I don't know. I think they're playing very good basketball. They may not -- according to coach Calhoun -- not hit their peak yet. But I don't know if we've hit our peak yet. It's early in the year. It's on the schedule and when we're supposed to play.
Q: Can you talk about signing Durand Scott and what it means? I guess from the outside, people see it as a huge victory not just because he's a great player, but because you beat UConn and Pittsburgh, two very good teams, in their own backyard. Is that how you see it?
A: Durand is a very good player. We've been recruiting him a very long time. He fits a huge need for us because we're going to be losing a lot of perimeter players. I'd even go to Garrius Adams -- State and Wake wanted him. Donnovan Kirk, Michigan State wanted to recruit him. I think we've done well. Our staff has done a good job creating a buzz about our program and we've worked hard at it. All three of those kids are going to have a great effect on our program.
Q: Two games in, anything you haven't seen yet that you wanted to see?
A: I think we're getting better each game. I thought obviously Lance Hurdle coming back yesterday was huge and you can see the difference he makes in the game. I felt the strides he made last season were going to be unbelievable. He plays 22 minutes and has 13 points, no turnovers and three assists. Just his poise, he makes a difference. Defensively, we've been sound. We got to continue to get our offense flowing better. I think Jack didn't have one of his games yesterday. I think he's pressing a little bit and we'll see a better Jack McClinton on Sunday.