We've been saying it all year and it will never more true than it will tomorrow: UConn's destiny is in the hands of Alex Oriakhi.
From the start there have been three things UConn needed to succeed. First, Kemba Walker has to be Kemba Walker. Second, at least two of the freshmen (it does not matter who) need to have productive games. Finally, Orikahi needs to give the Huskies legitimate production in the paint.
That first section is taken care of. As he has made clear over the past seven games, Kemba Walker is on a mission and as long as there are games to win he will do whatever it takes to put the Huskies in a position to win them.
You can consider the second section covered as well. Sure not everyone is on every game (Roscoe Smith anyone?) but Jeremy Lamb has turned in to a legitimate weapon, Shabazz Napier has his own crazy shabazz-y thing going on regularly now and even Tyler Olander (Olander!) has found a nice little niche as that guy you forgot about who remembered at the last minute that he has a reliable jumper perfect for puncturing zone defenses.
The third part, well thats where it might be time to worry because as we've said all season, as good as Kemba is, this team will only go as far as Oriakhi will let them, and Oriakhi is in for one hell of a test against San Diego St.
One thing you may have noticed about the Big East this year was that for a league that built its reputation on big men there weren't exactly a lot of big men to speak of. The Big East First Team was entirely made up of guards and the list of truly impressive big men in the league starts and ends with Rick Jackson. That meant the Huskies could sometimes hide Orikahi's ineffectiveness. They won't have that luxury against the Aztecs.
With the possible exception of Texas this is the best frontcourt the Huskies will go against this year. Sophomore Kawhi Leonard is the big name and with reason. He's averaging 15.6 ppg and 10.6 rpg. He's not the world's beefiest guy at 6-7 and 225 pounds but he's athletic and a threat. He is not alone either. He's flanked by two seniors, Malcolm Thomas (11.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and Billy White (10.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and the combination of all three has the potential to create some real matchup issues for the Huskies.
Prior to facing the aforementioned Texas team UConn was in its first of two slumps and I wrote this:
It's been frustrating to watch Oriakhi struggle, if only because we saw exactly what he can do back in November. Kemba Walker has been the best player in the country, the freshmen have been as good as you can ask freshmen to be. If UConn wants to compete at the level they did in Maui, it means that Oriakhi needs to play like he did there.
Oriakhi made me look very smart that day, scoring 11 points and grabbing an eye-popping 21 boards (10 offensive) against the Longhorns. His effort was crucial for what turned out to be not only one of UConn's most impressive wins but one of the most impressive wins any team had this year.
Of course Oriakhi has been playing much better recently than he had been prior to playing Texas. SInce coming off the bench against DePaul in the first round of the Big East Tournament the big man has been nearly averaging a double-double (9.9 ppg, 10.4 rpg). That's a good sign for the Huskies, because Oriakhi is going to have to be at least that good if UConn wants to still be alive on Saturday.
I do not know if the Huskies will beat San Diego St. but if they do it'll be because of Oriakhi. I'll guarantee you right now that if you look at his line after the game and he only had four or six points and a handful of rebounds the Huskies will have lost. If he pulls down 10 or 15 boards? Well, it won't guarantee a win, but I'll feel worlds better about UConn's chances.