UConn got by Texas on Saturday to give its non-conference resume a bit of a boost, but until Kemba Walker gets a little (more) help from his friends, the Huskies are going to continue to struggle to beat good teams.
Walker got the most support he's had from his backing band offensively against a quality opponent since Maui, with three non-Kemba players (Shabazz Napier, Alex Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith) breaking into double-digits, and two more (Donnell Beverly, Charles Okwandu) hitting season-highs.
And yet, perhaps the Huskies' most meaningful win of the season, one that head coach Jim Calhoun labeled "Our best win of the year," basically came down to a little luck; not only did Walker's miracle Taliek Brown-esque heave somehow find the bottom of the net, but the Longhorns also opened overtime by missing three free throws.
Despite the loss, Texas essentially laid out the blueprint for beating the Huskies: take out the head (Walker), and the body will fall. (Unfortunately for the Longhorns, Walker had enough postmortem chicken-like pep to finish the final five minutes as strong as ever, and, as noted above, the much-maligned support on offense played uncharacteristically well. Most teams will likely be willing to take the risk of repeat performances.)
By duct-taping Dogus Balbay or Cory Joseph on Walker and collapsing the interior defense any time the UConn point guard even sniffed the paint, Texas held Walker to arguably his worst game of the season. Although he scored 22 points and accumulated nine rebounds, the nation's leading scorer shot 8-for-27 (29.6 pct.) from the field and finished with a 1-to-4 assist-to-turnover ratio.
With the Longhorns' entire defense keyed on Walker and with two and sometimes three defenders swarming him, Walker's supporting cast should've had a field day. But despite having their best offensive performance of the season, the offering made by The Walkers was (predictably) modest, at best.
Despite finishing with an impressive 11 points and 21 rebounds, Alex Oriakhi proved once against that he has no offensive game whatsoever. To be fair, Oriakhi was a vital part of this win, as his dominance of the boards (he corralled almost 25% of the available rebounds) and defense (two blocks, one steal) proved irreplaceable. But a 31 percent (5-for-16) field goal percentage from a player whose shots all come from within two feet is unbelievably gruesome; it's already bad enough that Oriakhi (or Ben Wallace without the zany hair) can't score on isolations, but blowing wide-open looks and his usual putbacks is inexcusable.
The rest of the motley crew wasn't much better:
Tyler Olander (2-for-7) should never be within five feet of the ball on offense; Donnell Beverly (2-for-6) should stick to ball-handling; and while Shabazz's disregard for sanity is cute now and it paid off Saturday (15 points, 6-for-10 shooting), his apathy toward shot selection has put him on the fast track to becoming the next Jerome Dyson, my least favorite UConn player ever.
All things considered, the two most encouraging non-Kemba performances came from the Huskies' worst offensive player (Okwandu; 3-for-4, 7 points) and one who took the worst/best shot ever (Smith; 6-for-11, 13 points, 6 rebounds).
If this is the best the rest has to offer, the Huskies have reason to worry.
And yet, they have reason for optimism, too.
Kemba played his worst game of the season ... and UConn still won. For a team with so many flaws, that's damn encouraging, especially when, coming into the season, the Huskies weren't supposed to compete with the best in their conference, let alone the country.
And that's almost entirely a product of how good Walker has been this season. Even with such poor options to dish to, and with Texas' defense forcing Walker, one of the best at driving the lane in college basketball, to play off the ball and as more of a spot-up shooter in regulation, he was still able to score a game-high 22 points and will the team to victory in overtime. (Watch the overtime period again: No UConn player wanted anything to do with the ball in crunch time and kicked it back to the him like a hot potato as quickly as possible.)
But it's also a product of Oriakhi's development. As bad as he is on offense, Oriakhi has the potential to be one of the better rebounders in the country -- as of Sunday, he was 40th in the NCAA and second in the Big East in rebounds per game; and 15th in the NCAA and first in the Big East in offensive rebounds per game. And his work on the glass appeared to have made the difference Saturday.
UConn's defense was solid. Texas', though, was better: The Longhorns actually out-shot the Huskies in every period (43.4%-35.3% in the first, 46.7%-40.5% in the second, 50%-37.5% in OT).
But UConn fired off 16 more field goal attempts, including 12 in the second half. Not coincidentally, the Huskies also had 10 more rebounds than the Longhorns. So while the quality of their offense was actually worse than usual -- as a team, UConn shot exactly five field goal percentage points lower than its current season average -- the Huskies were able to band-aid some of it with quantity.
The approach won't work all of the time; Oriakhi isn't a fully refined rebounder, as evidenced by the fact that he accumulated fewer than half the rebounds than he had Saturday in the Huskies' previous three games (two losses and one OT stinker vs. South Florida). But when it does (and when Kemba chips in his usual 20-plus), the Huskies, despite their offensive shortcomings, have a chance to hang with the likes of Texas.
And considering the expectations (or lack thereof) coming into the season, we'll take that.
But if one of the youngins could develop into scoring threat, or even if a select few could produce with any semblance of consistency -- aside from Walker and Oriakhi, only Jeremy Lamb, who had zero points in eight minutes Saturday, has scored more than 10 points in more than two consecutive games -- the Huskies could be even more.
They might need to be now.