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The Huskies have been the biggest early season surprise.
By Ken Davis
It’s relatively safe to predict at least one lull by the Connecticut Huskies Tuesday night against New Hampshire at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs. It might be caused by the final remnants of jet lag. Or it could be the overconfidence that results from coming out of nowhere (almost) to win the Maui Invitational.
But it will happen.
Carrying a championship trophy home from an exotic location like the Hawaiian islands can lead to a strain of complacency — even in this reality-based age of TSA pat-downs. But coach Jim Calhoun has been around the block a time or two. And he can be more imposing than any TSA agent. At the first sign of difficulty, he will call timeout and bring Kemba Walker and the Huskies back to the mainland with a verbal assault worse than any body scan ever invented.
It’s a good problem for the Huskies. Returning as Maui champions is a much better alternative than anything offered by the loser’s bracket. Depending on what happens the rest of the season, the Huskies should look back at their first-round victory over Wichita State and call it the turning point. We weren’t kidding last week when we wrote the Maui opener could set the tone for UConn’s season. The Huskies were fortunate (not lucky, but fortunate) to get past Wichita State, especially after Walker got into first-half foul trouble.
Instead of dropping into the wrong side of the bracket and facing Chaminade, UConn got a shot at No. 2 Michigan State and made the most of it. In fact, the Huskies literally grew up overnight. UConn outcoached and outplayed the Spartans. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish against Tom Izzo’s program. But UConn was not the same team that observers — or coaches — had seen in preseason drills or the early portion of the regular season.
The Huskies, led by the scoring of Walker and the rebounding of Alex Oriakhi, then handled Kentucky impressively in the championship game. The team picked to finish 10th in the Big East won the most prestigious Thanksgiving week tournament.
The main topic of conversation has been Walker, who was unstoppable in Maui and now has scored 150 points in five games. Walker has been remarkable. Around the state of Connecticut, where expectations were low coming off an NIT season and a summer dominated by talk of NCAA allegations, the reaction was pure joy. That was based on UConn’s approach to playing more than anything else.
The Huskies proved they will be fun to watch again. Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson and Gavin Edwards were not leaders, and as last season progressed the fan base was turned off by their lack of aggression and intensity. Walker and co-captain Donnell Beverly have set a different tone, whether it has been in workouts or gathering for team meals prepared by Walker. This is a young squad that appreciates the leadership and direction. The desire to learn was evident early. Now the desire to win has returned to the program after a brief but disturbing absence.
Walker and Oriakhi, averaging 13.4 points and 12 rebounds, have responded to the heavy demands place on them. But they didn’t win Maui alone.
Freshman guard Shabazz Napier is playing outstanding on-ball defense. His shot selection needs improvement, but Calhoun has already learned that Napier can run the offense, while Walker stays on the floor and gets a rest from handling the ball every minute. German import Niels Giffey seems to have a high basketball IQ and made backdoor cuts that haven’t been part of UConn’s offense in recent years — if ever. Jeremy Lamb looks solid and steady at guard. Roscoe Smith is teasing with his raw potential and athletic ability.
One lingering concern is finding help up front for Oriakhi. What happens if Oriakhi gets into foul trouble or has an off night? Charles Okwandu is not the answer and never will be. Freshman Tyler Olander, a big surprise the first three weeks of practice, has a lot to learn and could be physically overmatched once Big East play begins.
Suddenly the challenges of a Big East schedule aren’t too far away. UConn opens at Pittsburgh on Dec. 27 — a showdown that will dominate Calhoun’s thoughts on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
But after Maui, the holidays seem much brighter for the Huskies.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
If you were watching college basketball during your Thanksgiving break, you may have heard more than one TV analyst say that Connecticut point guard Kemba Walker has been the best player in the nation at this stage of the season. No argument here. We were impressed by his 42 point performance against Vermont on Nov. 17 and named him POW in last week’s notebook. Then he went to the Maui Invitational and really shook things up. Walker scored 90 points in three games as the Huskies shocked the field and won the Maui championship with impressive victories over Wichita State, Michigan State and Kentucky. Don’t forget his 12 assists and eight steals. During the tournament, an earthquake centered on the Big Island could be felt in the Lahaina Civic Center. We’re still awaiting confirmation that Walker caused the Earth to move.
FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK
With so much attention given to the ineligibility of freshman center Enes Kanter and the debut of point guard Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones was under the radar as he began his career at Kentucky. Jones changed that last week in Maui. Walker overshadowed the 6-9 Wildcat forward, but Jones was sensational in all three games — 29 points, 13 rebounds vs. Oklahoma; 16 points, 17 rebounds vs. Washington; and 24 points, four rebounds vs. UConn. Jones leads Kentucky in scoring (21.2 ppg) and rebounding (10.2 rpg) through five games, is shooting 50 percent from the floor and 46.2 percent on threes.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
Monday, Nov. 29
Virginia at Minnesota
The Golden Gophers, led by guard Blake Hoffarber, are 6-0 heading into the start of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Virginia is 3-3 with losses to Stanford, Washington and Wichita State.
Tuesday, Nov. 30
Georgetown vs. Missouri
The Hoyas of the Big East visit the Tigers of the Big 12 in Kansas City. Austin Freeman is averaging 20.2 points to lead Georgetown. Marcus Denmon, Ricardo Ratliffe and Laurence Bowers share the scoring load for MU.
North Carolina at Illinois
Not exactly the 2005 national championship game, but this should be an interesting offering from the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Carolina is searching for some offense.
Wednesday, Dec. 1
Purdue at Virginia Tech
The Boilermakers suffered a surprising setback against Richmond and will have a tough time bouncing back at Tech.
Michigan State at Duke
Could this be a preview of the national championship game? Both teams are capable of going that far. Only time will tell. Sneak preview or not, this should be fun.
Thursday, Dec. 2
Arizona State at Baylor
Baylor has LaceDarius Dunn back from his suspension. He scored 24 points with seven 3-pointers in his return against Lipscomb. Now it is time for the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series.
UCLA at Kansas
The Jayhawks are entering the Pac-10 portion of their schedule. Kansas is coming off a victory over Arizona and welcome the Bruins to Allen Fieldhouse next. Bill Self’s team plays USC on Dec. 18 and at Cal on Dec. 22.
Friday, Dec. 3
Saint Joseph’s at Villanova
Bad timing for Saint Joseph’s to open Big Five play with Villanova. The Wildcats are coming of their first loss to Tennessee on Friday night.
Saturday, Dec. 4
Kentucky at North Carolina
Two historic programs, two successful coaches, and two of the top recruiting classes for 2010 — all in one big game.
Butler vs. Duke
They gave us a great national championship game in Indy. Now the site will be East Rutherford, N.J. Duke might be significantly better than the 2010 national championship team. Butler is struggling out of the gates.
Sunday, Dec. 5
Temple at Maryland
Temple is struggling in every aspect of the game. The Owls lost to Cal and Texas A&M over Thanksgiving weekend and playing the Terps in College Park is never easy.
THEY SAID IT:
“I was trailing the play, so I knew [Tyshawn Taylor] was going to throw it. It was a good pass, but it was an even better catch. Coach [Bill] Self always says to put it in with two hands, but there was no way he could do it on that one.” — Kansas guard Tyrel Reed, commenting on a powerful one-handed catch and slam dunk by teammate Thomas Robinson during an 87-79 victory over Arizona.
“I don’t know how he caught that. It wasn’t a great pass, but that was a big-time play.” — Bill Self, talking about the same play.
“It was like the bully at lunchtime out on the playground.” — Cal coach Mike Montgomery, describing his halftime scolding to his team Friday when the Golden Bears trailed Notre Dame 21-5.
“I was trying to do the math. I’ve never had 21 points at halftime and been up 16.” — Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, commenting on that first half against Cal.
“I have a lot of respect for him. I know he’s a good guy. I do know it. I know he has integrity. This business is tough. It can get to you. He might have skipped, but I admire the way he’s handling all of it. His team, man, he’s doing a great job coaching.” — Villanova coach Jay Wright, on embattled Tennessee coach Bruce Peal.
• How many Mountain West teams can command our attention? BYU, San Diego State and UNLV are all 6-0 and New Mexico has started 4-1. Steve Fisher’s Aztecs are receiving the most national love in the rankings but Lon Kruger’s Runnin’ Rebels turned a few heads while winning the 76 Classic at Anaheim, Calif. Kruger has brought together a band of transfers from major programs and kept his philosophy of emphasizing defense first. Chace Stanback (UCLA transfer) had 17 points and eight rebounds and was named most outstanding player as UNVL topped Virginia Tech 71-59 in the tourney’s title game. Quintrell Thomas (Kansas), Tre’Von Willis (Memphis) and Anthony Marshall were big contributors. Against Tech, the Rebels forced 18 turnovers, scored 24 points off them and won the battle inside 34-14. “Our guys have been able to be disruptive,” Kruger said. No argument from Tech on that point.
• Arizona coach Sean Miller had to be pleased with his team’s performance in Las Vegas. The young Wildcats (5-1) lost to Kansas, 87-79, primarily because they fell behind 31-15 early. There’s no doubt Arizona’s Derrick Williams will be a candidate for Pac-10 Player of the Year. Williams had 27 points and eight rebounds against the Jayhawks. Kansas coach Bill Self called him “the best player on the court.” New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies recently said of Williams: “He’s an NBA player. What can I say?” That sums it up pretty well.
• Kansas returns to action Thursday at home against UCLA. The Jayhawks will be in quest of their 64th consecutive victory at Allen Fieldhouse. KU made school history with No. 63, an 82-41 rout of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. The Jayhawks still have three more games before the Dec. 18 debut of freshman sensation Josh Selby. It will be interesting to watch Self juggle playing time when Selby starts dominating minutes at point guard. The KU offense has been functioning at a high level without Selby. Kansas leads the nation in assists per game (22.0) and field goal percentage (57.8). The Jayhawks are second nationally in points per game (92.0). And they’re about to get better? Well, yes. Selby will provide the backcourt leadership KU is missing. Right now the Jayhawk bigs are carrying the load.
• By defeating Wisconsin in the Old Spice Classic championship game, Notre Dame won its third in-season tournament title in 11 seasons under coach Mike Brey. And the Irish are 7-0 for the second time ever during Mike Brey’s tenure at Notre Dame. The other time was 2001-02.
• By the way, that five-point half by Cal against the Irish wasn’t even a record low for a half. Kansas State outscored Savannah State 48-4 in the second half back on Jan. 7, 2008. K-State won 85-25.
A• stomach virus that bothered Stanford guard Jeremy Green all last week appears to be the reason why he collapsed following Sunday’s 81-74 victory over DePaul. “As Jeremy was leaving the court following the game, he began to experience some dizziness and stomach pain due to exhaustion," Stanford’s sports information department said in a statement. "After receiving treatment at the arena, Jeremy was then transported to a local hospital for further treatment.” Green had played 39 minutes and scored 19 points.
Ken Davis is the author of Basketball Vault books covering the history of the University of Kansas and the University of Connecticut. Both are available through the publisher
(http://www.whitmanvaultbooks.com/) and autographed copies are available at Ken’s web page (http://kendavis55.wordpress.com/).