Huskies no longer a one-man show.
By Ken Davis
The puppies are growing up.
We’re talking about the freshmen at Connecticut. And, when you consider all the ramifications, it might be one of the biggest stories of the college basketball season.
Everything UConn does offensively still runs through Kemba Walker, who took the nation by storm and established himself as a national player of the year frontrunner with his electric performance at the Maui Invitational. But Walker no longer is a one-man band, and the Huskies confirmed that during huge victories last week over Villanova and Tennessee.
Sophomore center Alex Oriakhi had back-to-back double-doubles in those games — a welcome sight for the Huskies. But even more significant has been the emergence of freshmen Jeremy Lamb and Roscoe Smith. Lamb is a smooth shooting guard who combined for 30 points in the two victories. He has emerged a third offensive threat for the Huskies. Smith turned in stunning defensive performances on Villanova’s Corey Stokes and Tennessee’s Scotty Hopson. He also scored 12 in the 72-61 victory over the Vols.
If gives the Huskies a totally different look. UConn played with tremendous confidence. The young Huskies didn’t panic when they fell behind. Against Tennessee, Walker, Lamb, Oriakhi and Smith combined for 56 points on 21-for-41 (51 percent) shooting. Take out Walker’s 6-for-17 stats and the other three shot 63 percent.
The bottom line is the Huskies are 16-2 and no one expected that —especially not the Big East coaches who selected UConn to finish 10th in the conference’s preseason poll. UConn coach Jim Calhoun said on Big East media day he might have picked them lower than that.
The victory over Tennessee wrapped up UConn’s non-conference schedule. The Huskies went 12-0, and they have wins over Wichita State, Michigan State, Kentucky, Texas, Villanova and Tennessee. Depending on which RPI model you trust the most, the Huskies are either No. 3 (CollegeRPI.com) or No. 1 (ESPN’s Inside RPI).
There’s a lot of basketball to be played, but it would take a major collapse for the Huskies to miss the NCAA Tournament field. And after last season — when Calhoun had to take a leave of absence, the Huskies closed out the season on the bubble, and ultimately settled for a trip to the NIT one season after reaching the Final Four — this feels like a lot of fun for UConn Nation.
“Given the competition we face, I couldn’t be prouder of them,” Calhoun said after the Tennessee victory Saturday. “What we saw in Maui still wasn’t a true test of who we were. It was an idea that we had some things in us — Kemba particularly — that could make us a pretty good basketball team.
“Out of the 18 games played, [the game against Tennessee] was far and away the best team effort against a quality opponent. I don’t think it’s even close.”
UConn’s recruiting effort was a bit disjointed, and the freshman class came together relatively late. Calhoun said all along that liked his players, but the sudden maturation of this team is remarkable. Calhoun is begging Lamb to score. and what freshman wouldn’t enjoy hearing that? Smith’s teammates are calling him “Defensive Coordinator” because his role as the shut down guy has become crystal clear.
“I think the [freshman] label is gone,” Smith said. “We’re getting a lot of confidence in each other and in ourselves. Every little thing we do, every inch we step, everything we do in the weight room, and just everything builds our confidence.”
Freshman Shabazz Napier came off the bench against Tennessee to run the offense. He handed out four assists and gave Walker a chance to play off the ball. UConn even got six points, five rebounds and a block from reserve center Charles Okwandu, a senior who has struggled throughout his UConn career. Calhoun has stayed with him, and if Okwandu could make contributions consistently it would be enormous.
Calhoun has won two national championships, is in the Hall of Fame, and the critics said he should have retired last year. But this may be one of his best coaching efforts yet. If you want to make a short list of National Coach of the Year candidates this early in the season, he has to be included.
“Our chemistry is great,” Walker said. “We do everything together, and it just translates onto the court. [The freshmen] are growing up fast. Their confidence is really high right now. Hopefully we can keep them that way.
“I think [Calhoun] is letting them grow up. I think he has let them play through mistakes. That’s been the biggest difference this year. He’s not really yelling at them. He’s talking to them in a soft voice and giving them confidence when they do make mistakes. We need everybody to contribute in some type of way and if their confidence goes down, it’s going to be bad.”
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Texas made the biggest impact in college basketball last week, defeating Texas A&M and Kansas to take control of the Big 12. Jordan Hamilton didn’t have his most productive game Saturday — at least in terms of scoring. But there’s no doubt Hamilton had his fingerprints all over the sweep that left Texas with a 16-3 record overall and a 4-0 mark in conference play. Against A&M, Hamilton was 10-of-14 from the field, hit all four 3-point shots he took, scored 27 points and had eight rebounds. Against Kansas, Hamilton didn’t shoot quite as well (5- of-13), but he had 17 points and nine rebounds. The sophomore swingman has made tremendous improvement since his freshman year, taking his scoring average from 10.0 to 19.5 and his rebounding average from 3.7 to 7.2.
FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK
Jared Sullinger, of course. No. 1 Ohio State is at the top in large part because of Sullinger. He showed that again Saturday with 27 points, 16 rebounds, one assist and three blocks in a 73-68 win over Illinois in Champaign. He also went 13-of-15 from the free throw line. “Pride, heart and composure,” he told the Associated Press after the game. “Those three things — we really showed a lot of composure.” Earlier in the week, Sullinger had 13 points and nine rebounds in a 70-48 destruction of Iowa.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
Tuesday, Jan. 25
Purdue at Ohio State
This might be the game of the year in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes have emerged as the top team in the nation. Purdue is second in the Big Ten, and a win for the Boilermakers could alter the complexion of the season.
UConn at Marquette
Marquette needs a big win to help its NCAA Tournament resume. The Golden Eagles missed recent opportunities against Louisville and Notre Dame. UConn is playing well, but the Huskies will be going against a hungry team.
Wednesday, Jan. 26
Texas at Oklahoma State
The Longhorns took control of the Big 12 with a huge win at Kansas Saturday. This will be an emotional game for the Cowboys, one day before the 10th anniversary of that tragic plane crash that killed 10 members of the OSU program.
San Diego State at BYU
This is the first of two meetings between the top teams in the Mountain West, and both are in the Top 10. The Marriott Center crowd will be pulling for Jimmer Fredette and the rest of the Cougars. Kawhi Leonard, D.J. Gay and Malcolm Thomas are having outstanding seasons for the undefeated Aztecs. (A friendly tip: If you can get CBS College Sports Network, you can actually watch this game.)
Thursday, Jan. 27
Michigan at Michigan State
The visitors are 1-5 in the Big Ten. The home team is 4-3. Tough times for hoop fans in the state of Michigan.
Boston College at Duke
Boston College is 4-2 in the ACC, but the Eagles are 0-2 against Ivy League teams.
Saint Mary’s at Gonzaga
Will a power shift take place in the West Coast Conference this season? Saint Mary’s is 5-0 and 17-3 overall. Gonzaga is 3-2 and 13-7 overall. This would be a huge win for Saint Mary’s.
Saturday, Jan. 29
Georgetown at Villanova
The Hoyas are another mystery team this season. They’ve won two in a row, but beating Rutgers and Seton Hall doesn’t qualify as turning the corner. Villanova’s win at Syracuse Saturday was a big-time bounce back from the loss at UConn.
Louisville at Connecticut
Can Louisville disrupt the Huskies with pressure? Or is Kemba Walker too fast for the Cardinals?
Kansas State at Kansas
ESPN GameDay returns to Lawrence for the Kansas Sesquicentennial. (That’s the 150th anniversary of statehood for Kansas, in case you don’t know that big word.) The Jayhawks also will retire the jersey of Wayne Simien, an All-American in 2005 who played in two Final Fours.
Missouri at Texas
The Longhorns face another difficult challenge at home. Marcus Denmon and the Tigers have won three of their last four.
Sunday, Jan. 30
Duke at St. John’s
Steve Lavin has a roster loaded with seniors, and the program is trying to bring some magic back to Madison Square Garden. Beating Duke would help with that goal.
Northern Iowa at Missouri State
Missouri State begins the week in first place in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Bears play Drake and then have this contest against the Panthers, the Cinderella of last year’s NCAA tourney.
THEY SAID IT
“We are inconsistent because our best player, Scotty Hopson is inconsistent. Not his effort, not his attitude, not his ability. It’s just … there are times … I mean, UConn is not going to beat some of the better teams on their schedule on the road unless Kemba Walker has a good game.” —Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl after the Vols lost to UConn, 72-61, in Hartford Saturday. Hopson scored 13 points on 5-of- 13 shooting with five turnovers.
“We just played stupid, to be honest with you. We made a ton of turnovers and it kind of snowballed from there.” — Iowa State guard Scott Christopherson after the Cyclones committed 19 turnovers and went 4 for 22 from three-point range in an 87-54 loss to Missouri Saturday.
“I felt like Jared was pretty good today. That was a joke. He was awesome.” — Ohio State coach Thad Matta during his deadpan routine with reporters Saturday. Freshman Jared Sullinger had 27 points and 16 rebounds in a 73-68 win over Illinois.
"I’m really proud of those kids. Everybody talked about how poorly they played at Georgia Tech. My radio call [show] last night stunk; everybody was talking about how they were Carolina fans for nine million years and how bad we are; I don’t give a damn how long you’re a Carolina fan — those are kids in the locker room, and they played their buns off tonight. I can remember working for Coach [Dean] Smith, and we go down to Clemson, and we got beat 93-76, and I thought the world was going to end. … But I didn’t have anybody calling up the TV show, talking about my team. Don’t call me next week and say how good we are; keep your damn phone calls to yourself.” — North Carolina coach Roy Williams.
“First of all I want to apologize for my language at the end of the game. I got caught up in the emotion of the game, but that’s no excuse. Sometimes you don’t realize that what you’re saying on national TV. The [Big Blue Nation] deserves better and so do my players.” — Kentucky coach John Calipari on Twitter after ESPN cameras caught him cursing at Terrence Jones after the Wildcats lost at Alabama Tuesday.
“We had a pretty good practice yesterday and looked crisp and sharp. Then you come out and just never stop them. They got the shots no matter what defense we were playing. We never made them feel uncomfortable. Each time down the court, it seemed they were in control.” — Northwestern coach Bill Carmody, after Sunday’s 78-46 loss to Wisconsin.
• A fellow reporter asked me the other day about the parental selection of a name for BYU’s senior point guard. What were the Fredette’s thinking when they named him Jimmer? Since I wasn’t involved in the process, I didn’t have an answer. Then I came across the explanation in a Q and A exchange Fredette participated in for The Sporting News. “It’s basically from my mom,” the National Player of the Year candidate said. “She has a lot of Jameses and Jims in her family, and James is my real name. But she decided she wanted to make it unique, so she added the extra ‘m’ and ‘er’ to the end and started to call me Jimmer from birth. She wanted everybody to call me that.” Jimmer says he really likes the name. I’ve no problem with it. If he isn’t calling attention to himself with his game — and he does that every time he takes the floor — then the name is an added touch. It’s certainly better than going by Jimmy, isn’t it?
• Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser had the first triple-double in school history during a 78-46 victory over Northwestern. And the freshman knew exactly what he needed to reach that milestone. “Towards the last couple of minutes I had an idea that I was close and wanted just to get one more [assist] at the end,” he told the Associated Press. “Fortunately Brett [Valentyn] knocked it down. He missed one before that and told me he was going to get another.” Gasser got that final assist with three minutes left and finished with 10 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists.
• There’s something sad here, and you just hope the situation doesn’t get worse. Reserve forward Dan Jennings dressed for West Virginia Sunday but he didn’t play. And during the second half of the victory over South Florida, Jennings walked away from the bench and didn’t return. Coach Bob Huggins said it was “unexcused, inexcusable” and “never to be seen again, I guess. … I know, he started a couple of games, but he’s a non-entity. It isn’t like we lost Kevin Jones. I know, you guys [in the media] have to write about it, but it’s a sidebar. Isn’t that what you call it?” Maybe Huggins has a career as an assignment editor ahead of him. On the other hand, Jennings has probably worn the WVU uniform for the last time. Back in November, his name was actually spelled wrong on the back of his jersey. It showed up as JENINNGS. Jennings had a difficult childhood, bouncing back and forth from his biological mother to several foster homes in the New York City area. In November he wrote a speech entitled “Looking for the Light” that was presented at a Morgantown middle school and also at WVU. The speech began: “Did you ever have one of those days when nothing goes your way and you want to give up? Well, I had a whole childhood of those days.” What happened Sunday is a mystery at this point. The 6-8 sophomore was averaging 2.0 points and 2.5 rebounds in 14 games this season and started four times.
• Kansas sophomore Thomas Robinson will not be with the Jayhawks Tuesday when they play at Colorado. Robinson’s mother, Lisa, 37, died of an apparent heart attack late Friday night, just hours before Texas ended Kansas’ 69-game home winning streak at Allen Fieldhouse. Robinson played in Saturday’s game and informed coach Bill Self of his decision to return to Washington, D.C., Monday morning. “He wants to go home to be with his sister,” Self told the Lawrence Journal-World. “The bottom line is Thomas needs to do what he needs to do, and we’re all here to support him.” Lisa Robinson had lost her mother and father in recent weeks. “Thomas lost his grandmother at the very end of December,” Self said. “He lost his grandfather on Sunday and lost his mother on Friday night. For him to even be out there [Saturday] is remarkable.” Robinson learned of his mother’s death when his 9-year-old sister called him.
• Indiana’s backcourt has been hit hard by injuries. Verdell Jones III, who started 17 games this season, is out indefinitely with inflammation in his right knee. That news came just eight days after sophomore Maurice Creek injured his right knee in a win over Michigan. Creek had surgery last Thursday to repair the stress fracture and he is out indefinitely as well.