Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
NEW YORK – Hasheem Thabeet and DeJuan Blair became entangled during a play last month when Blair flipped Thabeet to the ground in a game won by the Panthers in Hartford, Conn.
Now the 7-foot-3 Thabeet and the 6-7 Blair will forever be intertwined after the Big East coaches named them Co-Players of the Year.
“It’s great, man,” said Thabeet, a junior whose team lost both games to Pitt this season and hopes for a rematch in the Big East semifinals on Friday. “He’s a tough kid. Going against each other twice, it was a great battle. Their team got to win. He’s always out there ready to do something for his team and me sharing this award with him is just great.”
Said Blair: “I want to thank my teammates. If they hadn’t gotten me the ball I wouldn’t have played the way I did. I wouldn’t be standing here right now.
“It’s an honor to be named the Co-Big East Player of the Year. It’s a great honor.”
The sharing of the Player of the Year honors is the first since 2001-02 when UConn’s Caron Butler and Pitt’s Brandin Knight did so. The award has been split five times in the 30-year history of the conference.
Blair, the Co-Rookie of the Year last season, averaged 15.6 points and a league-best 12.4 rebounds. Thabeet averaged 13.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.5 blocks and was previously named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season.
Both led their teams to 15-3 conference records and a double-bye in the tournament. Pitt is the No. 2 seed and UConn is No. 3. Both open play Thursday in the quarterfinals.
Thabeet grew up playing soccer in Tanzania and has improved tremendously in his three years on campus after continual pushing and prodding from UConn coach Jim Calhoun.
“I watched Emeka [Okafor] go from a 12 point scorer in high school to a 19-point scorer in college, but no guy has ever taken the quantum leaps that [Thabeet] has,” Calhoun said. “When I first saw him there were many Division I schools that just didn’t think that he’d be good enough. And our assistant coach Andre LaFleur stayed with him. He kept saying, ‘I see more, I see more.’ Then I went down to see and I know exactly what he was talking about. He was quick off his feet.”
Calhoun said Thabeet could step into an NBA game tonight and make an impact.
While Thabeet will likely go pro after this year, Blair said he isn’t certain what he’ll do.
“That’s something I’ll decide after the season,” Blair said. “I really ain’t worried about next year. I’m worried about March.”
He said his goal is to one day play in the NBA.
“Of course,” he said. “Of course that’s my goal, to play in the NBA and hopefully one day that will happen. I’m just going to keep playing in college as long as possible.”
While Calhoun joked that it would be good for UConn if Blair left after his sophomore season, he would advise Blair to stay on campus at least one more year.
“My advice to him is very clear: he should definitely stay,” Calhoun said. “He’s going to have to develop more game with his size. He doesn’t have to be tougher. He doesn’t have to be any more ferocious. He doesn’t have to play with any more joy of the game…But he’s probably going to have to develop a little more well rounded game.
“Because the next level up, when he says no one knocks me over, people will knock you over.”
Greg Monroe was named Big East Rookie of the Year, beating out Samardo Samuels of Louisville, Devin Ebanks of West Virginia and Mike Rosario of Rutgers. Monroe averaged 12.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.8 steals.
Jay Wright of Villanova was named Coach of the Year after leading the Wildcats to a 13-5 record and the No. 4 seed in the Big East Tournament. The Wildcats will make the NCAA Tournament for the fifth straight time.
“It’s obviously an honor,” Wright said. “In this league I think I speak for all the coaches, we’re all honored just to be a part of it. Most of us came up learning from Louie Carnesecca, John Thompson, Rollie Massimino and P.J. Carlesimo.
“In this conference we all have great respect for one another and to be voted by these coaches means the world to me. I have great respect for them and for what kind of men they are.”
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.