In the preseason, Jim Calhoun was asked how he felt about his team being picked to finish 10th in the Big East. His answer was simple enough -- he understood why the Huskies were there, but cautioned that no one had seen these Huskies yet. Well, the world has seen them now.
Tonight the Huskies beat Michigan St., the No. 2 team in the country. Tomorrow they'll play either Kentucky or Washington in the championship game of the most prestigious early-season tournament. Next week they'll be ranked. Life is good in Husky Nation.
There is no mystery why either, because the Huskies' success starts and ends with Kemba Walker, who talk all of four games to emerge as the early favorite for National Player of the Year. Walker scored 30 points for the Huskies tonight, hit a key fade-away in the last minute to help seal the win and once again looked like far and away the best player on the court.
However, unlike yesterday, Walker wasn't alone today.
Sophomore Alex Oriakhi dominated inside, scoring 15 points and pulling down 17 rebounds, an eye-popping nine of which came on the offensive end of the glass. Beyond Oriakhi, freshmen Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith both stepped up, played key minutes down the stretch and showed that they probably belong in the starting lineup. Smith used his Rudy Gay-lite athleticism to put up eight points, eight rebounds and three blocks. Napier's numbers weren't nearly as impressive (seven points on just 2-9 shooting), but his defensive intensity was unbelievable and was the biggest reason that the Spartan's Kalin Lucas committed five turnovers and was held to just 13 points.
To be fair, the Huskies are still an incredibly young team and that showed tonight. They will be prone to making crucial mistakes at terrible times and they were lucky those mistakes didn't catch up with them tonight. The Huskies missed five free throws in the last 80 seconds or so and Niels Giffey almost gave the game away by diving after a ball that Michigan St. deflected out of bounds before he was bailed out by the referee.
Still, there is a flip-side to that youth: exuberance and a never-say-die attitude that will serve them well. Yesterday they kept the game close after losing their best player for a half and erased two nine-point deficits. Today, they seemed ready to deliver a counter-punch every time Michigan St. tried to knock them out of the game. The most telling sequence for me started with about 12 minutes left in the second half. Down six (their largest deficit of the game) Roscoe Smith hit a three. Michigan St. responded with a three of their own. On the next possession Walker hit a three, MSU responded in kind. The same thing happened on the possession after that. Sure, UConn's perimeter D left something to be desired, but they stood eye-to-eye with the Spartans and refused to back down, displaying a killer instinct that was lacking from last year's team.
I don't know how good this team will be, but I do know they're good. Yesterday, Justin argued this team was fatally flawed because it was a weak team built around the pillar of one superstar who'd be called on to do it all. At the risk of being reactionary, I'd like to put forward that theory's inverse. This is a talented team, a very talented team. Alex Oriakhi has the potential to be dangerous in the paint and Napier, Smith and Lamb can be real weapons on the outside. I'd argue that Walker is the perfect person to lead this team because of his ability to completely take over a game. UConn has some very powerful and very young weapons. Yesterday that youth caught up to them, they didn't play as well as they needed to, but Kemba was there to pick them up. Today, everything was clicking and they fit well with Walker. Instead of saying that Walker is the sole pillar UConn is built upon, I put forth that he's the bedrock upon the team rests. There is a structure here, a strong one. It won't be perfect on every night, but Kemba's support should be enough to keep everything from collapsing when one or two parts are weak.
This is not a perfect team. They will lose games, including some games they should have won. But this is a good team, a very good team. They proved that tonight. Michigan St. has as much talent as anyone in the country and UConn, a team that starts three freshmen, hung with them all night before pulling out the victory. I won't verbalize all the hyperbolic thoughts running in my head, but I'm already in love with this class and this team. The difference from last year is night and day. The UConn Huskies are back ladies and gentlemen, and they are a force to be reckoned with.