Regardless of how much Jim Calhoun protests, there's little chance that Kemba Walker will be formally recognized as college basketball's player of the year.
No legend-cementing buzzer-beater or miracle-making conference tournament run can change that at this point.
While Walker officially remains in contention as one of four selected finalists for the Naismith award, given annually to the NCAA's top player, Jimmer Fredette, Brigham Young's offensive dynamo, has all but accepted the statue.
In fact, despite his unforgettable tear through the Big East tournament, Walker is generally considered the long shot for the honor among the four finalists (Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Duke's Nolan Smith the other two), sitting at just a 10-to-1 shot according to most online odds-makers. Fredette, meanwhile, is a near lock at 5/4 odds to be crowned as college's most valuable superstar.
But that hasn't stopped Walker from playing like it.
Since ending the regular season with seven losses over the Huskies' final 11 games, Walker has averaged 25.8 points a game in tournament play, carrying his team to seven straight victories in the process -- one of the most impressive feats in program history, let alone in UConn's roller coaster 2010-11 season.
And with the No. 3-seeded Huskies descending upon Anaheim to face No. 2 San Diego State in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, Walker now has a chance to further bolster his POY argument by doing something Fredette couldn't: beat the Aztecs when it matters most.
But he may need an award-worthy performance to do so.
To be fair, Fredette has had success against the Aztecs this season. San Diego State's only two losses in '10-11 have come at the hands of the Jimmer-led Cougars. And BYU's loss in the third matchup of the season, a 72-54 dismantling of the Brandon Davies-less Cougars in the MWC championship game just two weeks ago, was no fault of Fredette's; Jimmer powered in his usual 30 points, but received little aid as only one other BYU player scored more than six points.
And for the Huskies to have similar success against the second most efficient defense in the country, a similar burdensome offensive expectation will placed upon Walker's shoulders. Only, the means by which he goes about it may be a far cry from the Fredette-fueled attacks the 'Tecs have wrangled with thrice already.
Fredette -- and consequently, BYU -- thrives on the perimeter; 40% of the senior's shots this season have come from behind the arc, where he has connected on, appropriately, 40.1%. But Walker works backwards. Kemba's lifeblood is attacking the rim and penetrating into the heart of the defense. While his stroke has improved to some degree this season (both his eFG% and FG% have risen three points from last season), the junior is at his best when he's in bull-in-a-china-shop mode, using his knack for getting into the paint to get to the cup and draw fouls, not when he's hoisting up 3-pointers -- a style that been most evident in his recent, near-unstoppable seven-game run.
However, standing in his way this time will be perhaps one of the best frontcourts he's seen this season.
Much has been made of tonight's clash between the plus-sized players, and for good reason. But defensively, the biggest concern for Kawhi Leonard & Co. is unquestionably Walker, regardless of whom each SDSU defender is matched up against.
As they surely know through their battles with Jimmer, defending Kemba is a five-man task. And while stopping him from getting inside the arc is often the first step to slowing Walker down, closing out on him before he gets to the rim -- without fouling -- is almost as vital. Especially given the Huskies' penchant for runners and floaters, which SDSU has struggled with to some degree this season. The zone was once a perfect response to Walker's knack for penetrating and getting into the paint, but with the Huskies now generally relying on a smaller lineup to open up the floor, the junior once again has lanes through which to run and create mayhem.
Which leaves UConn with an interesting choice.
The Huskies have flourished offensively of late and have had more success against the dreaded matchup zone thanks in large part to some key personnel decisions. Charles Okwandu has seen his role and share of playing time shrink of late in tight games -- the senior averaged just 11 minutes against Louisville and Cincinnati, and is now playing more as a backup center rather than alongside Alex Oriakhi in the starting unit -- with UConn favoring a smaller lineup, with either Tyler Olander or Jamal Coombs-McDaniel in his place. Although the offense's old struggles against the zone reappeared at times against Cincinnati, the move has generally been a success. Walker is once again looking like his old self by using the extra space to get to the rim or foul line -- he's averaging 10.6 FTs a game over the past seven games -- and with an offensive rebounding machine in Oriakhi (14.6 OR%, No. 29 in the NCAA), the Huskies have still been able to outrebound their opponents -- a necessity for an attack that shoots so poorly from the field (48.4 eFG%, No. 207 nationally).
However, removing a 7-footer from the center of the court has created a potential defensive liability. While Okwandu is a black hole offensively, the sheer size of an Okwandu-Oriakhi tandem was an imposing force for opposing offenses, especially with a long, rebounding 3 in Roscoe Smith by their side. But when split up, the Huskies are able to be pushed around a bit; the Bearcats' beefy post players feasted inside against UConn's defense last week, outscoring the Huskies by 22 points in the paint.
Meaning an athletic, experienced and all-around better San Diego State front line, buoyed by a surefire first-round draft pick in Leonard and aided by two 10-plus ppg scorers in Malcolm Thomas and Billy White -- together, the Aztecs' three most significant players, in terms of efficiency -- could have a field day offensively and give Oriakhi & Co. fits on the glass; as noted earlier, the Huskies' adept rebounding crew faces a handful in SDSU, which attacks (No. 18 in OR%) and keeps opponents off (No. 60 in opponent OR%) the offensive boards and also boasts a defensive-rebounding aficionado in Leonard (26.3 DR%, No. 16 in the country).
If size truly matters -- and given UConn's success with a smaller lineup against Louisville, it still may not -- the Huskies could be in trouble. Especially in what figures to be a pro-SDSU, hostile environment against a team that has a history of limiting the one thing is has lived off of throughout their March run: free throws.
All signs, it seems, point to a bitter Sweet 16 ousting for the third-seed Huskies and an end to what has been a march through end-of-season tournament play like no other in the team's relatively long history.
Yet, the pre-game signs and statistics have often proven irrelevant in UConn's torrid tournament(s) run.
The Huskies' Big East tournament was supposed to end once it feasted on DePaul-flavored cupcakes. Syracuse's zone was supposed to be the perfect counter to UConn's offensive onslaught in March. And Louisville's up-tempo attack was supposed to run the running-on-fumes Huskies into the ground.
After 30 games that ultimately exposed all the foibles and follies of a team that appeared destined for an early NCAA tourney exit, UConn has performed almost like another team in the span of only two weeks. In large part because of the only thing that has proven to foil the 34-2 Aztecs so far this season: a transcendent star.
In three games against BYU, San Diego State's inside troika of Leonard, Thomas and White won the rebounding each time and combined to average 41 points a game. But each time, Jimmer's other-worldly offensive exploits either lifted the Cougars to victory or put them in position to win.
The Huskies likely can't overcome a loss on the boards given its shooting woes, but with Walker in tow, would you doubt them?
You can pick apart his player-of-the-year credentials all you'd like, but there's no questioning Walker's ability to defy the odds this March.