Chronicling the amazing postseason run of UConn's Kemba Walker
Nine postseason games, nine outstanding performances by Kemba Walker
Jim Calhoun: "No one has to do more for his team than Kemba Walker"
Whatever happens this weekend, people will tell stories about Walker's run
When the run finally ends, when Connecticut guard Kemba Walker either walks off the Reliant Stadium floor in defeat or clips a net as a national champion, basketball historians will have to dig deep to find a better postseason by a college player. When the Huskies face Kentucky in Saturday's national semifinal, they'll play their 10th consecutive single-elimination game. They haven't lost yet, thanks mostly to the 6-foot-1 guard from The Bronx who doesn't believe a shot exists that he can't make.
If UConn can win two more games, Walker is a near-lock to be named the NCAA tournament's Most Outstanding Player. At this point, Walker is on pace to blow away the postseason performances of the MOPs of the past 14 tournaments. Statsheet.com keeps game-by-game stats dating back to 1997. Since then, the highest postseason average points-plus-rebounds-plus-assists total for the MOPs belongs to Syracuse's Carmelo Anthony. While leading the Orange to the 2003 national title, Melo averaged 33.7 (21.4 points, 10 rebounds, 2.3 assists) in two Big East tournament games and six NCAA tournament games. In five Big East tournament games and four NCAA tournament games this season, Walker is averaging 37.5 (26.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 5.3 assists).
(For a full rundown of how Kemba Walker compares to the last 14 MOPs, check out the table below.)
Today, SI.com presents nine thoughts from nine wins in one player's postseason march for the ages.
UConn 97, DePaul 71
"I knew if I came off the screen and roll, if the guy played back, I was going to go with my jump shot. But if he stepped up, I was just going to go by him to the basket and make a play."
The run began humbly enough. UConn had finished the season by losing four of five and falling to ninth place in the Big East. That forced the Huskies to play in the opening round of the conference while the teams in the top half of the league enjoyed byes. UConn opened with conference doormat DePaul, and while the Huskies were in control most of the way, the Blue Demons seemed to grab a little momentum when they sliced UConn's lead to 10 with a three-pointer midway through the second half.
During this run, Walker has shown an uncanny knack for knowing when to punch a surging opponent in the gut. On UConn's next possession, Walker went around a screen set by forward Alex Oriakhi and read the next defender he saw. He sensed hesitation, and he blew past two Blue Demons to the basket. The Huskies cruised the rest of the way, and Walker led all scorers with 26 points.
UConn 79, Georgetown 62
"I think someone took a vacation and didn't tell you. Been gone for five months. That's one theory of mine. That's my conspiracy theory from Mel Gibson."
-- Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun on the fact that one of the league's coaches didn't vote Walker first-team All-Big East.
Without star guard Chris Wright, Georgetown didn't stand a chance against UConn. Walker scored 28 without hitting a three-pointer, and he spent much of the first half driving and getting the Hoyas into foul trouble.
UConn won so easily and Walker played so well that it became feasible to entertain the possibility that a team might be able to start the Big East tournament on a Tuesday and play into the weekend.
UConn 76, Pittsburgh 74
"Anybody in the world knew that ball was coming to me. I wanted to take that shot."
Walker actually had two options on the final play of UConn's third consecutive postseason win. He could shoot, or he could whip the ball to Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, who had just set a screen on Pitt's Brad Wanamaker and drifted out on the wing. When Wanamaker stayed with Coombs-McDaniel and 6-11 Panthers center Gary McGhee switched onto Walker, Walker made his decision.
Then he did this to McGhee, whose ankles may never be the same.
UConn 76, Syracuse 71 (OT)
"We tried to double him every chance we could, but he's very difficult. He's as good a player as there is in college basketball right now. He just made tremendous plays."
-- Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim
It figures that a rematch of the six-overtime classic from the 2009 Big East tournament wouldn't get settled in regulation. In UConn's fourth game in as many days, Walker turned in his best single-game performance. He finished with 33 points 12 rebounds, five assists and six steals.
In overtime, Walker twice followed rebounds with trips to the free-throw line. He hit all four of his foul shots and outscored the Orange 4-3 in the extra period. UConn had made history by making it to the Big East tournament final, but could Walker lead the Huskies to a fifth win in five days?
UConn 69, Louisville 66
"Now that it's over, I can definitely tell you I was tired. With about two minutes left, I was gassed. I just wanted to win this game so bad my heart took over."
By the time fatigue finally set in for Walker, he had already played 152 minutes in five days. It didn't matter.
At one point, as Walker headed to the line after drawing another foul, Louisville coach Rick Pitino yelled, "He's not Michael Jordan!" No, but for five days, Walker played with the same killer instinct as Jordan. Walker only scored 19 against the Cardinals -- his lowest output of the tournament -- but he certainly earned the MVP trophy he cradled after the win.
UConn 81, Bucknell 52
"He didn't look tired at all tonight."
-- Bucknell guard Darryl Shazier
The Bison double-teamed Walker seemingly every time he touched the ball, so he passed his way into a new career high. Walker dished out 12 assists to go along with 18 points and eight rebounds. Any thought that the Huskies would be exhausted from their run through the Big East tourney vanished as UConn raced to a 19-point first-half lead and coasted to an easy win.
UConn 69, Cincinnati 58
"We didn't want to foul him. He's 14-for-14 from the foul line, so that was the difference in the game. Gotta make people make shots. I think Coach Calhoun could have gotten 30 if we'd have given him 14 free throws."
-- Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin
With 11 Big East teams in the NCAA tournament, it was inevitable that some conference foes would have to face off early. The Bearcats knew exactly what to expect from Walker, but they still couldn't stop him.
Walker scored 16 of his 33 points in the final 10 minutes. Cincinnati closed the gap to three points with 5:09 remaining, but Walker followed a Shabazz Napier jumper with a three-pointer, and then a Walker steal set up a Roscoe Smith dunk. That gave the Huskies an eight-point lead with 1:36 remaining, and Walker iced the win with six free throws.
UConn 74, San Diego State 67
"He got the call, so I can't really say anything. It was a real good veteran move."
-- San Diego State guard Jamaal Franklin
Sometimes, Walker breaks ankles with a crossover or drains a textbook jumper, but not everything he does to help the Huskies win is pretty. In the second half of their Sweet 16 matchup against San Diego State, the Huskies knew they needed to grab back the momentum before the Aztecs ran away with a win. San Diego State fans had overrun the Honda Center, and they roared after Billy White's layup stretched the Aztecs' lead to four and forced Calhoun to call a timeout with 9:18 remaining.
What happened next became a matter of considerable debate. The following facts are not in dispute:
1) As they walked to their respective benches, Franklin and Walker brushed shoulders.
2) Walker ended up on the ground.
Whether Franklin generated enough force to knock down Walker is something only the players themselves know. One camera angle made it appear as if Franklin had shoulder-checked Walker to the ground. Another angle made it appear as if Walker had flopped well enough to be offered a spot in the English Premier League.
Officials made no call at the time, but during the timeout, they consulted the monitor and called a technical foul on Franklin. Walker scored two of his 36 points on the ensuing free throws, and the Aztecs' momentum evaporated.
UConn 65, Arizona 63
"You can look throughout the country. Obviously [there are] a lot of great players. We saw another one tonight, and the kid at BYU is a terrific player. There are obviously great players out there, but no one has to do more for his team than Kemba Walker."
Walker's shots wouldn't fall easily in the Elite Eight. Against Arizona, he missed 10 of his 17 field-goal attempts. So he had to find another way to help the Huskies win. During a timeout late in the second half, Walker suggested to Calhoun that UConn run plays for freshman Jeremy Lamb instead of for himself.
Calhoun agreed, and Walker assisted Lamb on jumpers on two consecutive possessions as the Huskies turned a three-point deficit into a one-point lead. Of course, Walker didn't stop shooting altogether. His 15-footer with 75 seconds remaining wound up providing the difference on the scoreboard.
It was fitting. Even after ceding the alpha role for the first time in a historic postseason run, Walker still found a way to be the difference-maker.
|Tourney MOP Hierarchy|
|How Kemba Walker compares to the last 14 NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Players in points-plus-rebounds-plus-assists average|