NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 11: Kemba Walker #15 of the Connecticut Huskies celebrates after a play late in the second half against the Syracuse Orange during the semifinals of the 2011 Big East Men's Basketball Tournament presented by American Eagle Outfitters at Madison Square Garden on March 11, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Kemba Walker has long since established his spot as one of college basketball's biggest superstars.
Unquestionably one of the best scorers in the country, Walker had already carried a crop of rag-tag teammates to a once-unthinkable 20-win season and back onto the national landscape before the calendar had even flipped to March.
But in tonight's Big East tournament championship game, he has a chance to become a legend.
That is, if he isn't one already.
In Walker's hometown, the Huskies have done the unthinkable. UConn had won just four games since the start of February when it rolled into town, bruised and battered from a roller-coaster season once destined for an almost equally wretched ending as the season prior. But with four wins in four straight days, the Huskies have accomplished more in New York than they had all season.
Sure, UConn, picked to finish 10th in the Big East in the preseason, rose to national prominence with a torrid run through the Maui Invitational, ultimately breaking into the top 5 in the AP poll by winning its first 10 games. But a zone-fueled fall from grace in 2010-11's final two months basically washed away any hope of a return to greatness, or even an NCAA Tournament win. After a regular season-ending loss to Notre Dame one week ago today, the Huskies' seventh defeat in 11 games and ninth in conference play, a non-double-digit seeding in next week's tourney would've been hailed as something to hang their hats on.
But now, a Big East championship not only is possible, it almost seems likely.
And they have Walker (27.8 ppg on 48 FG% in BET play) to thank for it.
Which, at this point, is an all-too-familiar feeling.
Walker has been the Huskies' everything this season. For better and for worse.
Their attack has flowed through Kemba, with the junior occupying 30.4 percent of UConn's offensive possessions, the 32nd most in the nation and (by my count) the fifth most among NCAA tournament hopefuls. And despite a slight efficiency skid since the start of conference play, he still ranks fourth in the nation in scoring, with a per-game average of 23.7 points.
But more than anything, it's Walker's competitive spirit that truly feeds this UConn team.
Always with a smile, always running after loose balls, always throwing himself in harm's way, Walker is exactly what you want your leader to be. And that mentality has seeped into the other players. And Jim Calhoun, as well.
There's no coincidence that Calhoun, in his 25th season at the helm in Storrs, has often said this season that this is the most fun he's had in a long, long time. At first it seemed like a stock comment, something to divert attention away from the ever-present feeling that this season, or this game, will be his last.
But now it's perfectly clear -- Calhoun is happy. Happier than he's been in a long time.
You can see it on his face every single game, and most notably in the way he let loose after Walker's miracle game-winning shot on Thursday ... before catching himself and falling back into Composed Calhoun mode.
There's just something about this team and the sense of togetherness that just gushes out of the players. It's charismatic. It's winsome.
And the Huskies, more than most, are aware of the effects chemistry can have on a team.
Jerome Dyson and Stanley Robinson were, by most accounts, two of the best players in the conference last season, 14-plus ppg scorers with more raw skill and athleticism than you can ever ask for in a player. Throw in Gavin Edwards, a solid role player despite all his foibles, and emerging talents like Walker, Alex Oriakhi and Ater Majok, and you have the making for a really good, if not great team.
Or so we thought.
Despite all the size, speed and skill, the team never put it together, finishing outside the NCAA tournament despite being ranked No. 12 in preseason.
Without a true big man and shooters (sound familiar?), there were fundamental issues last season, for sure. But the biggest problem, the one that ultimately led to their undoing, was the spiked cocktail of bad personalities. Dyson was a me-first headcase, Robinson was aloof (to be kind), Edwards was too passive, and Walker and Oriakhi were too young to challenge their upperclass ‘mates. Throw in all the eligibility issues surrounding Majok and the NCAA investigation, and there was no way such a team could exceed.
But this year's team seemingly has none of that.
Basically starting anew with seven freshmen, Walker and the Huskies have wiped out all of the angst that defined last season. Most importantly, there are no questions as to who's team it is. And Walker never questions his team.
Walker, despite all his offensive brilliance, has undoubtedly been dragged down significantly by his supporting cast this season (which could potentially cost him money in next year's draft). Sure, the soon-to-be All-American began taking too many errant shots midway through the season, but it was mostly a product of increased attention ... which was directly a result from his supporting cast's inability to provide any relief.
There's probably no greater disparity between a star player and his supporting in cast among BCS teams. And while that has in some ways helped Walker's star rise - the junior will likely double the amount of shot attempts he hoisted up in 2009-10 by season's end - it has significantly hindered the Huskies' chance for success, as evidenced by UConn's poor play against the zone, which dares anyone but Walker to win the game.
But Walker never complained (in public, at least).
And now they're making good on his faith.
Jeremy Lamb has flashed the talent to be a capable No. 2 option before, but now he's playing with some consistency, having scored over 11 points in each of the Huskies' four wins at Madison Square Garden - including four big ones in overtime Friday -- and shot 52.5 percent from the floor. Oriakhi, too, has provided a big boost, with at least 13 points and eight boards in three of the four games and, more importantly, an above .500 FG% for the entire tournament. And Charles Okwandu, Shabazz Napier and Tyler Olander have played well in spots, as well.
It's still not much; at least, not as much as it could be, given the talent some of these young players possess. But it's enough to give Walker an extra bit of room to make magic happen.
And his performance over the past four days has been nothing short of magical.