View Full Version : UCONN much more than Kemba Walker

03-30-2011, 08:05 PM

HOUSTON – With his team trailing Arizona late in Saturday’s West Regional final, the best player remaining in the NCAA tournament turned to his mentor during a timeout.

“Coach,” Connecticut’s Kemba Walker said to Jim Calhoun, “we’ve got to get the ball to Jeremy.”

Knight Considering it boasts one of the top basketball programs in the country, Kentucky's Final Four drought was almost hard to fathom. Thirteen years came and went without an appearance by the Wildcats on college basketball's biggest stage.

Now – finally – they're back.

Kentucky will be high on confidence when it takes the court in Saturday's national semifinal against Connecticut at Houston's Reliant Stadium. In fact, with three freshmen in its six-man rotation, confidence and swagger are the only ways to explain why John Calipari's squad made it this far in the first place.

"No matter if you're a freshman or a senior, whenever you experience success, your confidence grows," Calipari said. "We had our struggles early, but once we had a few things go our way, it totally changed how some of these young guys began to carry themselves and play."

The "young guy" who has meant the most to Kentucky lately has been point guard Brandon Knight. The freshman kept his team alive in the NCAA tournament by hitting the game-winning shot in an opening-round victory over Princeton. The following week he connected on a late jumper that cemented Kentucky's Sweet 16 upset of Ohio State, the tournament's top overall seed.

With Knight and fellow freshmen Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb leading the way, the Wildcats are confident not only in their chances against Connecticut, but in their ability to win their first national championship since 1998.

Capturing an NCAA title would be a huge feat for a Kentucky squad that wasn't supposed to be nearly as good as the 2010 outfit that featured five first-round NBA draft picks including John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. That team lost just three games all season but was upset by West Virginia in the Elite Eight.

Connecticut Kentucky isn't the only squad that enters the Final Four high on confidence.

Connecticut remains in the championship hunt despite being picked to finish 10th in the Big East. Butler's appearance in last season's NCAA title game apparently wasn't a fluke, as the Bulldogs are in the Final Four for the second year in a row. Their opponent, Virginia Commonwealth, is fresh off a victory over No. 1 seed Kansas. The Rams began the tournament in the "First Four" in Dayton and defeated schools from five of the six power conferences on their path to Houston.

It truly was a telling moment: Walker, a Wooden Award candidate with a Final Four on his resume, deferring to the red-hot Jeremy Lamb, a freshman playing in his first NCAA tournament.

Sure enough, Lamb delivered by making two straight jump shots that gave Connecticut a lead and a momentum it would never relinquish in a 65-63 win.
Freshman Jeremy Lamb is averaging 18.3 points during the NCAA tournament.

After the game, Walker was all smiles as he talked about the trek that led the Huskies to the Final Four.

“It’s a special feeling,” Walker said, “but I didn’t do it by myself.”

Indeed, in the span of just three weeks, Connecticut has gone from a team that finished ninth in the Big East to a squad that at times has looked unstoppable while winning nine games in 19 days. Five of the victories came in the Big East tournament while the others occurred in the first four rounds of the Big Dance, where Calhoun’s squad takes on Kentucky in Saturday’s national semifinal at Reliant Stadium.

As well as Walker has played, the beauty of the last three weeks – and, perhaps, the reason for Connecticut’s success – is that they haven’t all been about the Kemba Show. Walker is doing his part, sure. But now, finally, so is everyone else.

“These guys have gotten better every game, every practice,” said Calhoun, who is making his second Final Four appearance in three years. “I’ve never seen anything like it. When I’m tough on them, they come back every day begging for more.”

Even though Walker is averaging nearly 27 points in four NCAA tournament games, Connecticut’s reputation as a one-man team has fallen by the wayside. All those people who once excused Walker for trying to take games into his own hands because he didn’t have any talent surrounding him have been proven wrong.

“These guys have gotten better every game, every practice. I’ve never seen anything like it. When I’m tough on them, they come back every day begging for more.”
— Jim Calhoun

By freshmen, no less.

Lamb and Roscoe Smith are both starters, and Shabazz Napier plays 23.6 minutes per game off the bench. Lamb is averaging 18.3 points during NCAA tournament play and Smith scored a career-high 17 points in the Huskies’ opening-round victory over Bucknell. Napier is averaging 5.5 points over his last four games.

“He brings that little extra playmaking to a team,” Walker said of Napier. “There’s times when I’m not able to be on the ball the whole game because maybe I’m a little fatigued. Guys will want to pressure me and he gives me that extra edge.”

Calhoun has seen it, too.

“We’ve won 30 games,” he said. “Shabazz has been sensational for us. He’s taken a lot of pressure off of Kemba this year and allowed us to play him at positions other than the point. Next year, Shabazz is going to mold into one of the top point guards in the country.”

Walker said the biggest difference in the Huskies’ supporting cast as of late has been confidence. And that doesn’t just include Napier, Smith and Lamb, but players such as forwards Alex Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu and guard Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, as well.

Still, the freshmen have been the biggest key, especially lately.

“I don’t think anybody could tell them anything right now,” Walker said. “They’re on top of the world. They’re playing great basketball, each and every one of them. We’re going to need these guys big time for us. They got us where we are now, so hopefully they can keep it up.”

The signing of Smith, Napier and Lamb didn’t create the same kind of buzz that existed in Kentucky after the Wildcats signed current freshmen Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb. Each of those three players was ranked among the Top 25 prospects in the Class of 2010.

Connecticut’s Smith was ranked No. 36 by Rivals.com. Lamb (No. 76) and Napier (No. 98) barely cracked the top 100. All of it makes the coaching job Calhoun has done with this bunch that much more impressive.

As Calhoun well knows, a one-man team may be good enough to get a school to the NCAA tournament’s second week. But only a complete, well-balanced unit can last long enough to get to the Final Four.

That’s not to say the Kemba Show won’t roll on this weekend in Houston. The difference is that, if the Huskies win, Walker may not be the only player summoned back onto the stage for a curtain call.