ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 26: Jeremy Lamb #3 of the Connecticut Huskies dunks the ball against the Arizona Wildcats during the west regional final of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament at the Honda Center on March 26, 2011 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
The signs have been there, long before the national hype or the unparalleled postseason success.
He hinted at as much early on in the season, his efficiency serving as a glimmer of hope amidst a once-successful season in a downward spiral. And he's proven as much this March, averaging 16 points over an almost unheard of nine-game run spanning the two toughest tournaments in the nation.
Now, it's a fact: Jeremy Lamb is the next star of the UConn Huskies.
Any lingering doubt about it was officially washed away with one endorsement from the team's resident superstar.
The Huskies' eight-point lead in the Elite Eight Saturday had wilted to a three-point deficit after Arizona's Derrick Williams hit two free throws with 6:36 to play in the second half. It was the perfect spot for the near-perfect college closer to shine, once again. But Kemba Walker, who had missed his last two shots and turned it over twice in the time it took the Wildcats to score eight unanswered points, did what any good point guard would: He dished it off to a teammate in the best position to make a play.
"We've got to get the ball to Jeremy," Jim Calhoun recalled Walker saying.
After all the right calls his All-American junior had made already in the Huskies' journey from the first day of the Big East tournament in New York to the Elite Eight in Anaheim, how could he disagree?
So UConn pinned its hopes on a freshman.
And Lamb, in his just 39th game of college basketball, responded, scoring the game's next two buckets and then punctuating a 10-0 run by picking off a Williams pass and slamming home a seven-point UConn lead -- one it would never relinquish (not without a few scares, of course).
While he likely won't reel in any hardware for his trouble, Walker has been unquestionably the most valuable player in the country in the season's final stretch. Averaging 26 points in postseason play, while picking up nine straight victories, a Final Four berth and a Big East championship in the process, the UConn junior has helped orchestrate one of the greatest tournament runs in program history.
But none of it would have been possible without the emergence of his freshman sidekick.
Walker has been downright unconscious at times, hitting shot after shot that will be replayed year after year in March Madness highlight reels. But his unstoppable persona that has been built up in the NCAA Tournament narrative is really nothing new to veteran UConn devotees. Sure, with the rise in stakes come more memorable moments; Walker's step-back buzzer-beater that felled Pitt in the Big East tournament, for instance, will almost certainly be cherished more than his Kobe-esque self-pass off the backboard in a regular-season win over Georgetown. But taking control of games and filling up the stat sheet has almost become old hat for the nation's fourth-leading scorer and one of college basketball's biggest ball-hogs.
The difference now is that Walker's one-man show has become a variety act. And Lamb is slowing making his way up the marquee.
Alex Oriakhi, despite his limited offensive game, has developed into an Ultimate Role Player (akin to Ben Wallace, almost) in UConn's Kembatic offense, as his dominance on the offensive glass provides the extra possessions it so dearly needs. But it's no coincidence that the evolution of UConn, in the wake of an almost unwatchable flameout at the end of the season, as a national title threat has coincided with Lamb's own ascent.
The most efficient offensive player on a team of middling shooters with a 54 eFG% and a 55.8 TS% (both Husky highs), Lamb has long displayed the potential to posture as a No. 2 scoring option, most notably during a midseason string of eight straight games in double-figures (including three 20-point performances in the row). But like most first-year player, things were still too up-and-down -- he averaged just 7.7 point (including an 0-fer at Louisville) on 39.6% shooting over UConn's final seven regular-season games -- to warrant a starring role in Walker's ensemble.
Now, the freshman is near-automatic, having scored at least 11 points and shot 54.6% from the field over the Huskies' nine-game postseason winning streak. Better yet, the 37.2% career 3-point shooter has become just as deadly behind the arc as he is from the mid-range -- where he dazzles with an unstoppable floater and an instructional video-approved jumper -- hitting on 73.3% of his shots from 3in the NCAAs.
With Walker occupying so much defensive attention, a ripe opportunity always existed for any secondary scorer that could consistently make the most of open looks. In Lamb, the Huskies have finally found that.
And yet, he's so much more.
Walker is the lifeblood, but Lamb basically embodies the heart of this UConn team.
The Norcross, Ga., native came to Storrs with some expectations as Rivals' No. 76 player in the country, but, even after half of a season, he was probably known more for his father's own exploits against Calhoun than for his own history playing under the Hall of Fame coach. Like the Huskies, who were picked to finish 10th in the conference in the preseason, not much was expected of a freshman with more muscle than substance.
But just five months later, so much has changed. While Walker asserted himself as one of college's stars early on, the players around him, much-maligned for most of the year, are now almost as well-known for their contributions. After months of being chased down by the NCAA infractions committee, an ever-smiling Calhoun is being lauded for his run in the NCAA Tournament.
And while we watch these Huskies ascend from Big East bottom-dwellers into legendary territory, Lamb, once just a face in a crowded freshmen class, has quietly, slowly become the next face of UConn basketball.
Jeremy has no idea how good he is. He could be great. I think that has allowed him to play as a freshman for this team and not worry about anything else. He reminds me of Richard Hamilton in that way. They take shots.
And make them. Regardless of the situation.
In addition to Walker's heroic performances, the Huskies have torn through tournament play, shedding supposed fatal flaws in the process, by sticking to a winning formula of crashing the boards, getting to the free throw line and primarily sticking to shots inside the arc. But in its past two victories, against two of the toughest non-conference opponents it has faced all season, in hostile situations, UConn slightly deviated from the script. The Huskies had won the boards battle in their first seven postseason games, but were out-rebounded by both two-seed San Diego State and (badly by) fifth-seed Arizona.
UConn was able to combat that some by nailing a combined nine more freebies (it shot fewer FTs than average but the pace was much slower, too). But more importantly, they had Lamb.
Walker scored a combined 56 points in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, but perhaps for the first time in some time, he came up short at the end against the Aztecs. The junior missed his final four shots, allowing San Diego State to claw back to within one point with 2:57 to play, and almost take the lead had a Kawhi Leonard 3 been true.
After Oriakhi corralled the defensive rebound, the Huskies took a timeout. Walker, like he had so many times before, would get the ball, but his jumper missed the mark again. However, Oriakhi, who again gobbled up the rebound, kicked it out to Lamb, who effectively laid the death blow by sinking a 3-pointer. And if that weren't enough, Lamb picked off a D.J. Gay pass two possessions later by sticking his spider limbs in the passing lane and essentially put a seal on the win with a dunk the other way.
Next time, Walker had no doubt to whom the ball should go.
Immediately after the Sweet 16 victory, Calhoun & Co. did almost nothing but revel in the exploits of their freshman phenom. Not so much the 24 points Lamb poured in on just 11 shots, tying a career high. But the ability to, in just the first postseason of his college career, stand up against one of the best defenses in the country and stand tall next to one of the NCAA's preeminent players.
Which led to one reporter, following the Huskies Elite Eight victory, to ask Lamb if he "knew what he was."
"You mean, like... What do you mean?" Lamb asked, speaking for almost everyone listening.
The press room in Anaheim snickered slightly, and Oriakhi leaned over to lend a hand: "He wants to know if you have a pulse?"