Posted by Matt Norlander
HARTFORD, Conn. — If Jim Calhoun can barely contain himself at the podium in the post-game press conference, then something really special just went down.
Kemba Walker’s about the only person in any arena who can make the UConn coach ramble on and on and on to the media. After a loss to Syracuse two weeks ago, Calhoun refused to talk about Walker’s play because it was so bad; the UConn junior scored season-low eight points in the Feb. 2 66-58 home loss to the Orange.
But Wednesday night? Calhoun was so chat-happy he only had time to allow three questions from reporters. The UConn coach of 25 years couldn’t move his mouth fast enough when talking about how big his team’s 78-70 home win over No. 9 Georgetown was and how fun Walker was to watch.
“He’s leading a lot of young people to some awfully good places,” Calhoun said of Walker. “At one point in the middle of the second half when we finally took the lead, he just wanted to beat everybody. You could see it. I’ve never been able to see a guy do those kinds of things. And those are the kind of magical things that he’s done throughout the entire year. … It was a pleasure to watch him compete like that.”
We shouldn’t — and won’t — talk turning points with UConn because its situation doesn’t call for that kind of praise; after all, this is a 20-6 team that’s assured itself of a 5-seed at worst after ending Georgetown’s eight-game winning streak. Calhoun clearly considered this win his team's most important since the Maui Invitational in November.
Walker’s play, however, does enable us to discuss turning points for him. Man, oh, man what a show. A massive uptick/a return to form was due for No. 15, who put on his first impressive, efficient performance since Jan. 15 against DePaul — and does that really even count? — wherein he scored 31 points, the same tally he had against the Hoyas.
Walker’s night was highlighted by a play that will go famously be remembered as one of the best of his college career. An intentional bank pass/shot from the foul line to himself, which he caught, then put through the hoop with an off-balance bunny shot. If you haven’t seen the highlight by now, just zip to the video at the bottom of this column.
“It was the only play I could make,” Walker said of the Kobe-like maneuver. “I had Henry Sims on me. I stepped back, picked my dribble up, I didn’t have anything. It was just me and the rim and the backboard.”
Walker was believed to be a distant third, perhaps even fourth, behind newcomer Nolan Smith of Duke, in the national Player of the Year race. But Walker won’t ever truly be out of the running, not when he’s dazzling up scoreboards and dropping thousands of jaws — like he did tonight. His play at the XL Center put to bed all doubts of who should be the Big East Player of the Year, at a minimum.
When asked to explain his play against a top-10 team, Walker said, “I just took whatever the defense gave me.”
Pretty sure Walker took everything, period.
“He basically put us on his back, led us to victory and scored every way possible,” teammate Alex Oriakhi said.
On the flip side, Georgetown coach John Thompson III was dour as could be after the loss. He credited some of Walker’s play, but was matter-of-fact in summing up why his team — which was in the game until the final minute — fell to 20-6 and 9-5 in the Big East.
“Our defense was horrible today,” Thompson said.
Funny how Walker can make coaches say that. The Hoyas lost for the first time in more than a month (Jan. 12 at Pittsburgh). Thompson’s point guard, Chris Wright, explained why Walker did what he did and does what he does.
“He stretches the ball screens out very well, and it forces the bigs to keep stretching, so it’s hard for the guards to get back in front,” Wright said. “So then he plays around the screen and it’s to his advantage. … Once he got in the lane, he pretty much was doing whatever he wanted.”
For all Walker did, and for as incredible as he was to watch, how about the carousel of Robins that have emerged to Walker’s Batman? This is a definite pattern. At the beginning of the year it was Oriakhi who was playing a strong complementary role. Then freshman Shabazz Napier showed promise and helped UConn get out to a 10-0 start. For a portion of January, Jeremy Lamb became the No. 2 guy for the Huskies.
Now: Hello, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel.
Walker is not the only reason UConn is where it is. This rotating posse of supporting players is keeping the Huskies unpredictable for opponents and steady in week-to-week chunks. McDaniel’s come a long way from the disappointing player he and fans considered him to be last season.
“I learned a lot from last year,” Coombs-McDaniel said. “Like, when you sulk and stuff and don’t get playing time, and you do nothing about it, you’re not going to get any better.”
On the topic of giving Coombs-McDaniel more minutes after he put up a career-high 25 points in Sunday’s 75-57 win over Providence, Calhoun said, “That seemed to be a good idea.”
“Where Jamal reminds me of Rashad Anderson is that they never met a shot they didn’t like,” Calhoun said. “And if they miss a shot, they’re going to take the next one. … I couldn’t be happier for Jamal.”
With a stabilized role, McDaniels was able and ready to be the latest beta to Walker’s alpha.
“I’m trying to be that glue guy, that hustle guy, for the team,” Coombs-McDaniel said. “[Earlier in the year] I was working from outside-in, especially when I was starting. I’m not the type of shooter to just come in and start knocking down 3s. I have to have a feel. I’m mature enough know that, and now that’s what I’ve been working on.”
But for the 19th time at UConn, Calhoun is a 20-game winner. Kemba’s the reason why.
“I think tonight is just a giant win for us in a hundred different ways,” Calhoun said. “It really was. I mean, they’re (Georgetown) really good. Here at home, to get a win like that, and have the crowd so much involved. … It’s an awful lot of fun. It really is, with these guys.”
Jim Calhoun is having fun and enjoying a season with a team that’s certainly got its share of flaws. That is the power of Kemba Walker who's still every bit as electrifying as any other college player in the country.
Photo: US PRESSWIRE