UConn much more than Kemba Walker
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.”
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.
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.
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.