Final Four Breakdowns: UConn Huskies
Kemba’s been big, but so has his supporting cast.
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
There promises to be enough juicy storylines floating around Houston this week to write a book on each of your 2011 Final Four participants. But I have a blog and four days between now and when the madness resumes. Four days, four teams… sounds kind of perfect. Today’s team: Connecticut Huskies.
Final Four History: 1999, 2004, 2009
Distance from Storrs to Houston: 1,531 miles
Quote of the Tournament: “A good friend of mine once said, ‘I don’t mind fighting you in an open space, but I hate to put you in a corner.’ If I take something personally, I’m going to do everything humanly possible to make sure your perception is wrong.” – Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun on his team’s response to low expectations/criticism.
|G-Kemba Walker||G-Shabazz Napier|
|G-Jeremy Lamb||G-Donnell Beverly|
|F-Roscoe Smith||F-Jamal Coombs-McDaniel|
|F-Tyler Olander||C-Charles Okwandu|
Why They Are Here: To make a long story short, the answer starts with “K” and ends with “emba.” The most valuable player of the Tournament, up until this point, is the reason Connecticut has a chance in every single game. But the reason this team has gone from exceeding expectations to blowing them out of the water is the development of the supporting cast around the All-American.
Kemba carried the Huskies on his back in the Big East tournament. Call it a demi-god playing amongst mortals at the Garden. But even when Kemba was busy dropping 33 points on Cincinnati, 36 versus San Diego State, or a feeble 20 against Arizona, Connecticut’s surprise tournament run can be attributed to the shot-making of freshman Jeremy Lamb and the poise of classmate Shabazz Napier. While Lamb probably emerged as Jim Calhoun’s second most reliable offensive threat at the midpoint of Big East play, his NCAA Tournament play has NBA scouts drooling and college coaches wondering how they overlooked this skinny, under-recruited tweener from Georgia. While Lamb has been scoring, Shabazz Napier has had demonstrated remarkable ball toughness in pressure situations throughout the Tournament. In more than 100 tournament minutes, Napier has committed just three turnovers, two of which were in the Huskies’ lopsided first-round win over Bucknell. The two freshmen, plus a host of role players who have found their niche within the team, have made Kemba Walker even scarier and harder to prepare for.
They Will Win on Saturday Because: Connecticut has shown it can survive without offensive production from Alex Oriakhi, but a big game from the enigmatic sophomore earns the Huskies a trip to the title game. It’s hard to complain about Oriakhi’s game when he averages close to a double-double on the season, but he hasn’t reached double figures in points yet in the Tournament. It obviously hasn’t slowed down UConn, but an offensive rebirth in this game would certainly be timely. One of Oriakhi’s best games of the season came in Maui, when Connecticut manhandled the still green Kentucky lineup 84-67. Both teams are much different and improved since November, but if Oriakhi carries confidence from that performance into Saturday night, the Huskies will be in great shape.
They Will Lose on Saturday Because: Considering all he has done for Connecticut (and college basketball, for that matter) this season, it’s not really fair to say the Huskies will lose Saturday because of Kemba Walker. But, there is the potential for Walker to shoot his team out of the game on Saturday. It hasn’t happened often this season; but on occasion, Kemba will pull a Kobe and, because he knows he’s the best player on the floor, try to single-handedly take over the game with his shot. Connecticut has been so hard to defend during its nine-game winning streak mostly because Kemba has been controlling games both with his offense and the threat of his offense (averaging close to 25 points and 7 assists per game during the NCAA Tournament). Kemba seems to have found a perfect balance between when his team needs him to be aggressive and when it is better for his teammates to gain some confidence. If that balance is disturbed on Saturday and we Kemba shoot 10-27 (February 24 vs Marquette) or 8-23 (March 2 vs West Virginia) from the field, Kentucky will have an edge. Bad shots lead to long rebounds which leads to a Kentucky dunk contest.
Watch out for: Don’t underestimate the value of Jim Calhoun’s Final Four coaching experience. While John Calipari has been here before, and his in-game strategy (not normally considered his coaching forte) has been excellent in March, the coaching edge goes to the Huskies. Not only does Jim Calhoun own a more successful and richer Final Four history than his counterpart in this game, but he is working on arguably his most impressive season as college head coach. Coming off a disastrous season in which his team miserably underachieved and his frequent health issues seemed to worsen, Calhoun has taken a team picked to finish 10th in the Big East to the brink of the National Championship game. While neither will ever be mistaken for a saint when it comes to NCAA recruiting ethics, this coaching match-up adds a little extra zest to what should be a great game.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.