UConn's run attributable to Walker

Kemba Walker and coach Jim Calhoun. "We gave him a road map, and he drove it," Calhoun said.
Kemba Walker and coach Jim Calhoun. "We gave him a road map, and he drove it," Calhoun said.
Posted: April 04, 2011

HOUSTON - Nobody wants to be the Colts team that was upset by the Jets in the Super Bowl, or the guy who loses his perfect game with two outs in the ninth to a .150 hitter. Everyone wants to be remembered as a champion, and no one wants to be remembered as the answer to a trivia question.

The University of Connecticut finds itself in that precarious position Monday night as the Huskies play Butler University for the NCAA championship. Will this UConn team be remembered for winning the title, the program's third under coach Jim Calhoun, or will it be remembered as the big school that allowed a feisty mid-major to finally break through in the game's modern era?

It very nearly happened a year ago, of course, and to a much better team than the Huskies. Butler came within a half-court heave of upsetting Duke at the buzzer, and the Bulldogs return with a team that is capable of the same sort of performance.

On paper, Connecticut, No. 3 seed in the West Region, is a vulnerable favorite. It has been 22 years since the best-seeded team in an NCAA championship game was not a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed (1989 - Michigan vs. Seton Hall, both No. 3 seeds). If Butler could have handpicked the year for another swing at the moon, this might be it. UConn has had a great month in compiling 10 straight wins, but its regular season was dotted by disappointment and inconsistency.

There are holes in Connecticut's game that aren't normally associated with national champions. The Huskies don't shoot the ball that well and were particularly unsteady on three-point attempts this season - hitting 33.7 percent and ranking 189th among Division I teams. In the national semifinal against Kentucky, UConn advanced despite a 1-for-12 night from three-point range. The Huskies don't force many more turnovers than they give up, and the same goes for steals. On some nights, all those deficiencies added up to losses, as they did in four of the last five regular-season games.

But the Huskies aren't here on a pass, because there is a lot they can do, too. They defend shooters very well, get more than their share of blocked shots, and they make their free throws. If it doesn't sound like much, it was enough to win them five games in five days at the Big East tournament and then five more so far in the NCAA tournament.

Oh, and one other thing: Connecticut might have the best college player in the country in junior Kemba Walker. In any case, the Huskies have the best player still playing. When the ball goes up, that's always a good thing to have.

"Danny [Manning] made everybody better," Kentucky coach John Calipari said of the player who led Kansas to a 1988 championship. "If he had to score, he scored. If he had to get a big block, he would. If he had to pass, he passed. That's what Kemba does. He's been scoring a lot of points, but if he's not, he'll figure out what it takes his team to stay in the game. He has the same effect that Danny had in '88."

It might be difficult praise for the younger player to process, particularly since Manning's championship came two years before Walker was born, but then the 6-foot-1 point guard went out and made Calipari both a prophet and a loser in the national semifinal. Walker didn't shoot well, but he made his free throws, added seven assists to go with his 18 points, picked up two steals, and made perhaps the biggest play of the game when he raced downcourt to block a shot from behind late in the going. His legs were dead. He didn't have much left to give. But he gave that.

"I knew they were going to try their best to stop me . . . so I was able to find my bigs, and . . . those guys were able to make shots," Walker said.

According to Calhoun, Walker has done the work to get to this point mostly on his own. He stayed in Storrs, Conn., nearly all summer to work on his shooting, on developing more effective mid-range scoring, on ironing the small wrinkles from his repertoire until his game was perfectly smooth.

"We gave him a road map, and he drove it tremendously," Calhoun said. "Sometimes you have great ones, and sometimes you have good ones, and sometimes you don't have ones. When you have a great one, you need to recognize that. I certainly recognize."

Walker was a Plan B in Calhoun's recruiting scheme for the 2008-09 season. Connecticut wanted Brandon Jennings - now playing with the Milwaukee Bucks - and Jennings committed to the Huskies. Unfortunately, he also committed to Southern California and Arizona (before eventually playing professionally in Italy), and Calhoun threw up his hands and went after Walker. The kid from the Bronx was hot at the time, having led his AAU team to several major tournament wins, but Calhoun still thought he might have been settling.

"I thought I was going to get a quick New York City point push guard, a defender, all that type of thing. And he's evolved into much more than that," Calhoun said. "The thing that I didn't know was his competitive drive that allowed him to put in a summer . . . two to three hours every day shooting the basketball. He was a terrific player last year. Right now, he's as good a player [as there is] in the country. To me, he's the most valuable player in the United States."

And that's not a bad way to start filling out your lineup for the national championship game. It doesn't mean the Huskies will win, but it is why they are the favorites. Great players do great things, and the greatest act Kemba Walker can perform for Connecticut on Monday night is to keep this team from being the answer to that trivia question.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com and read his blog at www.philly.com/postpatterns

 

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