Kemba does it all for UConn

RYAN WOLSTAT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:05 PM ET

HOUSTON — The Connecticut Huskies will walk out of Texas with championship No. 3 ... and No. 15 is the reason why.

Butler might be the feel-good story and greater than the sum of its parts, but it doesn’t have an engine like Kemba Walker.

Walker, the fourth-leading scorer in Division I at 23.5 points per game, does much more than simply put the ball in the basket.

He also puts UConn on its shoulders, as he as done during a 10-game winning streak that has allowed the Huskies to claim the Big East tourney title and - with a win on Monday — the NCAA championship, as well.

Walker, the 20-year-old Bronx native, is a leader on and off the court. His teammates follow him around away from the gym and follow his lead between the lines.

His coach, Jim Calhoun, considers Walker the best player in America and says he is an extension of the coaching staff on the floor — a key with all good teams.

“Sometimes you have great ones and sometimes you have good ones, sometimes you don’t have ones. When you have a great one, you need to recognize that. I certainly recognize,” Calhoun said.

Butler has its scrappy defence and mojo on its side, but it can’t prepare for Walker the way it does with most great players. He’s not just a shooter, he can get to the rim whenever he wants to. He can also set up his teammates for open shots or easy putbacks because of all the attention he draws.

And then there’s the defence. Walker can hound opponents like he did Kentucky’s Brandon Knight at times during Saturday’s semifinal win. He can also elevate for plays like the Dwyane Wade-esque block that was a turning point in Saturday’s one-point victory.

“It isn’t just the jump shot or the drive, it’s all the intangibles, the joy of playing basketball, that he brings to the game that separates him, in my opinion, from everybody else, plus seven freshmen, two sophomores, nine on our team. He’s the guy they all follow,” Calhoun said.

The 68-year-old bench boss laughs when opponents claim they held Walker in check by keeping him under 30 points.

“Yeah, I know that John (Calipari) said they thought they did a great job on Kemba. He only had 18-7-6, got loose balls, blocked shots. If that’s controlling, he’s far and away the best player in the country. He dominated the game when it had to be dominated. Down the stretch he made big shots. That’s, frankly, the telling time of a great player.

Walker leads team in scoring and assists and is second in rebounding and the progress in his game has been remarkable. He bumped his scoring up this season to 23.7 per game from 14.6 (8.6 as a freshman), kept his assists almost level (4.6 compared to 5.1), raised his rebounding and somehow managed to lower his turnovers per game from 2.9 to 2.3.

The biggest change, though, was in his mid-range game. Walker has remained a 33% shooter from three, but has surged to 43% from the field after shooting 40% a year ago.

The progress was all from off-season hard work, says Calhoun

“We gave him a road map, and he drove it tremendously. He’ll tell you the number of hours,” said the coach. “A lot of kids say they’re going to. But maybe that third day, maybe I’ll go someplace else. That was not Kemba.”

Calhoun said what Walker has done is put up possibly the best season in UConn history. He also said Walker told him he will stay in school, but that is highly unlikely after what he has accomplished.

Butler head coach Brad Stevens is certainly aware of what Walker can do.

“He’s really good, he’s a guy that puts you in a lot of unique positions,” Stevens said.

Amazingly, the Huskies were just 10th in the Big East and after starting the year winning 17 of 19, stumbled, losing seven of 11 games in one late January-early February stretch.

According to Walker, things changed after the team lost to Notre Dame to end the regular season.

“We had a couple of great practices it was like the first day of practice again. We just tightened some things up. Going into the Big East tournament, we had a couple wins under our belt and we started to get a lot more confident,” Walker said.

Indeed, all the team did after that was win five games in five days — with Walker making spectacular shots in the clutch — and then five more in the NCAA tournament to get to this point.

Butler might be the trendy pick to win it all, but Walker will make sure it doesn’t happen.

ryan.wolstat@sunmedia.ca


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