Kemba's Kids made this all possible
College Basketball Contributing Editor
Houston, TX (Sports Network) -
This is why sports have a beginning and an end.
In the beginning, there was a lot of noise, most of it self-inflicted, caused by the recruitment of Nate Miles, allegations, impropriety, and eventually the determination that major violations occurred and penalties would be levied.
And that was before the ball was even tipped.
When the season finally began, it became apparent that Kemba Walker was a highly-skilled artist. He put on an and-one performance, a virtuoso exhibition of individual talent, scoring 90 points against the eventual postseason NIT champion (Wichita State), Michigan State and national semifinal opponent Kentucky during the Maui Invitational. It was an eye-opening statement, as UConn leapt from the unranked scrap heap after a 16-loss season to a national contender over three days on the Hawaiian islands with one large disclaimer.
This team needed more consistency from other players. For as incredible as his Maui performance was, Walker played a freestyle offense that could never last through the Big East gauntlet and into the NCAA Tournament.
He needed help, and as a leader he indicated as much, encouraging his freshman backcourt mate Jeremy Lamb after his five-point, five-shot output during the final two days in Maui.
"I had to get adjusted to the speed and really the strength of the other players. Early in the season, I didn't do the little things like set my man up and come off screens, just do everything full speed," said Lamb.
Alex Oriahki grabbed just one rebound in a 15-point loss in the Big East opener at Pittsburgh. Lamb had another no-show in an OT escape against lowly South Florida, scoring just four points in 20 minutes.
"He didn't have much confidence. He didn't know his role," Walker said of Lamb.
Oriakhi then put up a goose egg against a Notre Dame team that didn't start a player over 6-foot-8.
"People said we were just Kemba Walker," said Oriakhi. "It motivated us. We just worked hard."
In reality they were just Walker, who looked worn down from heavy minutes and constant double teams during multiple late-season stretches, including four losses in five games to end the regular season.
Then, a group head coach Jim Calhoun referred to as "brothers" had its best practice of the season prior to the Big East Tournament, and Walker's maddeningly inconsistent supporting cast became everything but. Oriakhi posted 19 points and 19 boards, while Lamb also tallied 19 points in a rout of DePaul. Then it was Jamal Coombs-McDaniel who chipped in 12 point s with Lamb scoring 11 in a comfortable win over Georgetown.
After succumbing to Pitt's physicality earlier in the season, Oriakhi stood tall with 13 points and seven rebounds, while Lamb added 17 points on just nine shots in a 76-74 victory. Another double-double from Oriakhi (15 and 15) helped the Huskies edge Syracuse in overtime before the total team effort, four players in double figures, allowed the whirlwind work week to end in a championship game win over Louisville.
A maturing collection of individuals had learned how to play with Walker and take advantage of the attention he draws.
"I told guys to find shooting lanes and I would find them," Walker said of the instruction he gave his teammates.
Lamb listened, scoring 16 points in the second-round rout of Bucknell, but he wasn't alone. Roscoe Smith added 17 points and seven boards, while Oriakhi finished one point shy of what was quickly becoming a customary double-double with nine points and 12 boards.
Walker scored 33 points against Cincinnati, but the game was never in doubt because Lamb added 14 and Coombs-McDaniel awoke from a slumber to add 10 off the bench. Lamb was the star of the regional semifinal victory, abusing San Diego State's smaller guards, making 9-of-11 shots for 24 points while forcing D.J. Gay into a 5-of-15 shooting night.
Lamb's development wasn't just on the offensive side, as his long arms and lateral quickness not only suffocated Gay, but then forced Arizona's Lamont Jones into an eight-point night while scoring 19 of his own. With the spotlight shining bright, he forced Kentucky's Brandon Knight into a 6-of-23 shooting game and held Shelvin Mack scoreless for the championship's first 11 minutes.
He scored all 12 of his points in the second half, and Oriakhi finished with what other than another double-double in the pinnacle contest. The Final Four was a great stage for one of the game's great players in Walker, but a national title never would have been possible without the growth and consistency of Lamb, Oriakhi and UConn's various moving parts that joined arms as brothers (there is that word again) and made a champion again out of their basketball father figure, Calhoun, who became the oldest coach to ever win a championship at age 68.
Other than Walker, the tournament's Most Valuable Player, UConn looked very different from Maui to Houston, a ride that Calhoun admitted he "needed" after one of the most trying off-court seasons of his 39-year head coaching career.
A Maui title marked the beginning, and thanks to Kemba's kids' overall growth, the ending included a piece of hardware that will put these Huskies in the record books.
Trexler is the author of "99 Things You Wish You Knew Before...Filling Out
Your Hoops Bracket." Click
HERE to purchase the Kindle version...and stay tuned on
an updated hardcopy edition this winter! Trexler also wrote "Penn State
Football: An Interactive Guide To The World of Sports", a detailed look at the
Nittany Lions' storied football history. It can be purchased HERE.