UConn will emerge from Madison Square Garden tonight as the first team to ever play five conference tournament games in five days. Kemba Walker is already a legend for his heroics in Days 1-4; only time will tell if Kemba and the Kidz have enough on Day 5.
On the way to tonight's Big East Tournament final against Louisville (ESPN, 9 p.m.), the Huskies have been on something of a Revenge Tour, knocking off their demons one by one.
Wednesday, UConn rolled past an NCAA Tournament-caliber team (minus one of its best players, but still) without much of a sweat. It was UConn's first double-digit win over a Tournament-caliber team since Tennessee on Jan. 22.
Thursday, UConn's young, undersized pups battled step for step with one of the biggest, toughest, most experienced teams in the country. They took the first punch - metaphorically, falling behind by 12 early, and physically, in the form of BLOODFACE~! - and came back. They battled Pittsburgh, winning tough, winning on the boards, and winning with a shot that has already entered the hallowed UConn Canon of Awesomeness.
Friday, the Huskies FINALLY put one over on the Orange in MSG, and slayed the 2-3 zone like champs. Syracuse had beaten UConn in the 2006, 2007 and 2009 tournaments. They had won two straight in the regular season. Not last night, thanks to Kemba's sheer will, Alex Oriakhi's sudden aggressiveness, and Tyler Olander's sudden realization that he actually may have useful skills.
And fittingly, you can make the case that tonight's Big East final is the toughest of all demons to conquer.
Louisville has beaten UConn twice already this season. UConn more or less gave away the game at Gampel. The Cardinals more or less hammered the shit out of the Huskies at the Bucket in Louisville.
Now it's one game for all the marbles. UConn does not appear to match up favorably with Louisville, but a good chunk of that is based on the UConn team we saw for 24 games (post-Maui, pre-MSG).
These Huskies, they seem different. The Huskies haven't shot particularly well in this tournament, but they have done three things very well:
- They (well, Kemba) get(s) to the free throw line; UConn shot 53 free throws in the wins over Pitt and Syracuse, making 43 of them. The Huskies had averaged just over 20.5 free throws per game.
- They are starting to score in transition again. Against Syracuse, UConn scored 15 points off of turnovers and 9 in transition; against Pitt, UConn outscored their opponents 20-0 off of turnovers, and scored 12 on the fast break. This still isn't a great halfcourt team, so free points (and 4-point swings) are huge.
- They're rebounding the hell out of the ball, Kemba and Alex Oriakhi in particular. UConn doubled up Pitt on the offensive glass (17-9), with Oriakhi corralling five; last night, the Huskies got nearly half of their misses (18 offensive boards, 41 missed shots).
They'll need all that and more to get by a relatively well-rested Louisville team tonight.
The Cards are capable of bringing pressure all night, and that could prove to be tough to deal with for a team running basically on adrenaline and muscle memory. They have noted UConn-killer Peyton Siva, who is 14-for-25 in their two wins over the Huskies (averaging 17 points, 5.5 assists, 4.5 steals and 3 rebounds in those two games). Louisville is red-hot, having won six of seven, the lone exception being the WTF loss to West Virginia last weekend. They're a fine shooting team who can kill you with 3's, or who can beat you to the rim. They have one of the top coaches in the Big East, who has put together a surprisingly excellent team with what was assumed to be a bunch of spare parts.
Oh, and as they showed last night, Louisville is perfectly capable of flustering a Big East Player of the Year candidate.
After four days of basketball, Louisville and their style of play present the greatest possible challenge to this team. Like against Syracuse, UConn will have to solve the zone that perplexed them previously; Like against Pitt, they'll have to hold their own with the tough, physical, athletic Cards. A win tonight would only be a monumental cap to one of the craziest weeks ever.
Can it really happen?
With Kemba, all things are possible.
Tip-off is at 9 p.m. from Madison Square Gordon. TV coverage is on ESPN; your OpenThread is right here.
Let's go Huskies.