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Calhoun, who in February was hit with a three-game NCAA suspension for his part in recruiting violations committed four years ago, grew characteristically impatient. Assistant coaches George Blaney and Kevin Ollie worked on him. "They told me we were getting better," said Calhoun, long past midnight on Saturday, after his team had beaten Cincinnati, another Big East rival, 69--58 to advance to the West Regional in Anaheim, where the Huskies will play San Diego State on Thursday. "I thought they were talking about getting better far away from now, and I didn't want to accept mediocrity. But this"—Calhoun pointed to the joyous locker room— "is what they were talking about."
While the freshmen were growing up—in particular, willowy 6'5" guard Jeremy Lamb, who scored a combined 30 points in two games in Washington, D.C., but, says Calhoun, "couldn't guard a chair at the beginning of the year, and now is a pretty good defender"—Walker was arguably the best player in the country, averaging 23.1 points and providing an always-reliable endgame option. Asked if Walker, who scored 33 against Cincinnati, had carried the Huskies more than any player in Calhoun's 25-year career at UConn, Calhoun said, "He's had to carry the team more."
But no more than Fredette, whose credentials for player of the year are roughly equal to Walker's but whose profile, thanks to his epic scoring binges, is higher. Even before 6'9" sophomore forward Brandon Davies was suspended on March 1 for violating the school's honor code (he reportedly had premarital sex with his girlfriend), Fredette was BYU's star, but his leadership role has intensified. The nation's leading scorer, Jimmer accounted for 44.3% of the Cougars' field goal attempts in the first five games after Davies's suspension, though that number dipped to 40.0% in the first two NCAA games (wins over Wofford and Gonzaga), during which Fredette poured in a total of 66 points. As BYU prepares to play a tall, quick Florida team in the Southeast Regional in New Orleans, the 6'2" Fredette remains by far the player in the tournament on whom his team depends most.
In December the same could have been said of Irving. The Blue Devils, who lost point guard Jon Scheyer to graduation, seemed to have dramatically upgraded the position while tearing through their first eight games. Irving was electrifying in the same way that John Wall was for Kentucky a year ago, and he averaged more than 17 points and five assists. Duke seemed to be building a case as the national championship favorite. But a torn ligament in his right big toe kept Irving out until he returned to score a team-high 14 points in an opening win over No. 16 seed Hampton.
Irving had just one field goal (and nine free throws) in Sunday's 73--71 victory over Michigan, but it was a vital mid-range floater that gave Duke a three-point lead with 33 seconds to play. "They were really good without me," Irving said on Saturday. "Now that I'm back, I just want to contribute the best I can."
The burden still lies heaviest on Duke's veterans. Senior guard Nolan Smith moved to the point when Irving was hurt, improved in almost every offensive category (scoring, assists, rebounding) and was named a first-team All-America. "It's been a challenge, but I've really enjoyed it," said Smith in February. "We were one team with Kyrie and we're another team now." The usually reserved Singler became more vocal with younger players like guards Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins and the 6'10" Plumlee brothers, Mason and Miles, who were unaccustomed to big-game pressure. In theory, any strength gained in Irving's absence remains a strength upon his return, but Duke struggled to beat the Wolverines. His reacclimation remains a work in progress, posing considerable risk.
The Blue Devils will play Arizona, which put together a comeback season for second-year coach Sean Miller but eliminated Texas on Sunday, 70--69, only after the Longhorns were whistled for a five-second violation while trying to inbound under their own basket with 14.5 seconds to play. Texas freshman Cory Joseph asked for a timeout, but referee Richard Cartmell signaled that five seconds had elapsed even though it appeared that only slightly more than four seconds had gone by. The Longhorns were not alone in wondering if imperfect officiating had terminated their tournament; Washington, Memphis and Louisville (which was stunned in the first round by No. 13 seed Morehead State) all landed on the wrong side of agonizingly close endgame calls (or non-calls).
Ohio State, the top overall seed in the tournament, has not wobbled even for a moment in beating No. 16 seed Texas--San Antonio and eighth-seeded upstart George Mason (playing without forward Luke Hancock, who had a stomach virus) by an average of 30.5 points. Late on Friday night in Newark the Buckeyes take on fast-improving Kentucky (which eliminated West Virginia) in the most high-powered matchup of the Sweet 16. Fifth-year senior swingman David Lighty, playing in his hometown of Cleveland, was Ohio State's leading scorer with 25 points in the win over George Mason. That wasn't his best work of the week. On Thursday night Lighty turned in the last exam of his academic career—the final in a class called Quantitative Methods in Consumer Affairs—and on Saturday morning, in a small ceremony at Quicken Loans Arena, he received his diploma alongside three other Buckeyes seniors. He says he got a B plus on the test. The first weekend of the 2011 tournament, graded on drama alone, got its customary A.