The 7-foot-3 junior center nearly had his second triple-double in two weeks, finishing with career-highs of 25 points and 20 rebounds while blocking nine shots Saturday in No. 1 Connecticut's 62-54 victory over Seton Hall, the Huskies' 13th straight win.
"Thabeet, to me, might be the best player in the country," Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez said. "I don't know who has a better player than him, who has a more dominant guy than him in the country. He, to me, is the No. 1 player in America. In my opinion from what I have seen, you know I am not trying to push him out the door, have him go pro, but if I was an NBA franchise I would take him No. 1 in the draft."
Nobody was arguing with Gonzalez on Saturday.
"He's so tough you need a broom, you need some extra help," said Seton Hall center John Garcia, who gave away 7 inches but had a career-high 22 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. "He is that talented, that athletic, that long. That is why he'll be a lottery pick."
Back to talking about his college career, Thabeet's performance was so important to the Huskies (24-1, 12-1 Big East) because they managed to match the 1995-96 team for the best start in school history despite playing their first game since losing second-leading scorer Jerome Dyson.
The junior guard, who was averaging 13.2 points and is one of the team's most effective outside shooters, tore the lateral meniscus in his right knee against Syracuse on Wednesday. He will undergo surgery Tuesday and likely miss the rest of the season.
"Jerome is one of our best perimeter defenders so now I know my teammates need me more to help them with blocks if they get beat," Thabeet said. "Great team defense is still the key for us and I am going to be more aggressive."
Thabeet, who had 11 points, 15 rebounds and a career-high 10 blocks against Providence on Jan. 31, smiled when asked about just missing another triple-double.
"I definitely wanted it, who wouldn't?" Thabeet, who was 10-for-13 from the field, said. "You can't worry about numbers, they give you what you get. Coach just told me to do my job and I did it."
Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun raved about Thabeet, making one comment that let you know what the center meant to his team.
"The difference tonight was there were nine players and Hasheem," he said. "Every once in a while you see that."
Jeff Adrien had 14 points and 15 rebounds - his 44th career double-double - for Connecticut, which finished with a 55-43 rebound advantage and blocked 11 shots. The Huskies have led the nation in blocks the last seven seasons and are second in Division I with an average of 7.4.
This was the second straight game Connecticut held an opponent to a season-low point total following its 63-49 victory over No. 23 Syracuse.
Robert Mitchell had eight points and 15 rebounds for the Pirates (14-10, 5-7), who had won their last five, all in the Big East, and shot 31.2 percent (24-for-77) for the game.
"When you play a team like Connecticut you might go through some droughts because they make it so difficult to score because they have the terminator standing in the lane," Gonzalez said. "He is unbelievable. He changes the game. He dominates the game. He alters the game. They threw seven or eight alley-oops and he dunked without even jumping."
Huskies guard A.J. Price said Thabeet has become "more active, more assertive."
"He is a huge asset, there's no doubt about that," he said.
Connecticut led 33-23 at halftime and had its biggest lead of the game at 47-35 on a tip-in by Thabeet with 13:29 to play. The Huskies would match that lead three more times but couldn't put Seton Hall away, as Garcia found a way to score inside, something no one else on the Pirates could do.
Connecticut hurt itself by going 15-for-27 from the free throw line and neither team could connect from 3-point range, with the Huskies going 3-for-8 and the Pirates 2-for-15.
Connecticut, which has been on top of the poll for the past two weeks, is 40-7 when ranked No. 1. Seton Hall fell to 0-11 all-time against top-ranked teams. The Huskies host No. 4 Pittsburgh on Monday night.
Calhoun said the Huskies are a different team with Dyson and that he'll see how different when they play a team like Pittsburgh, which they also face in the last game of the regular season.
The Huskies have won nine in a row over Seton Hall and 23 of 25. Connecticut won the earlier meeting this season, 76-61.
"We knew coming in we were playing with house money," Garcia said. "This won't affect our confidence, in fact it shows we can play with the No. 1 team in the country."
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