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While Walker's skills were obvious as a high schooler, Calhoun wasn't certain he wanted him. The Huskies were recruiting Brandon Jennings, a star at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va. But Jennings—who eventually would play a year in Europe before entering the NBA draft and starring for the Milwaukee Bucks—couldn't pick a school.
"Brandon said, 'Well, I still want to visit a couple more schools, but I'm definitely coming to UConn,' " Calhoun says. "I turned to [assistant] Andre LaFleur and said, 'Let's see if you can go all out to try to get Kemba Walker. He'll be a program player, a terrific player for us, a lead guard.'"
In college basketball parlance a "program player" is a player who will stay four years, contribute and then go play in Europe or enter the working world. It is not a phrase typically used to describe a future lottery pick. When Calhoun signed Walker, in 2007, he couldn't have predicted that four years later, as a junior, Walker would be in a position to choose whether or not to leave early and be a first-round draft pick. The credit for that development, Calhoun says, goes to Walker himself. "We gave him a road map," the coach says, "and he drove it tremendously."
AS A SOPHOMORE IN 2009--10 WALKER, ALONG WITH Dyson and Stanley Robinson, was a main cog on a team that went 18--16 and lost in the second round of the NIT. Entering this season, the idea of Walker leading a group of freshmen and sophomores didn't inspire any Final Four visions. Some analysts predicted the Huskies might wind up in the NIT again. But Walker had grown as a player in the off-season. In Las Vegas and New York City he and several other college standouts sparred with a U.S. national team loaded with NBA stars. Walker held his own against the game's best, and he returned to Storrs with new confidence and a few new tricks.
"It helped me a lot because I was able to go up against the premier college and NBA players such as Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, to name a few," Walker says. "They guarded me like I've never been guarded. They helped me understand the pace of the game. That was really the biggest thing."
Walker didn't back down while playing against that elite competition, and he certainly didn't shrink from the challenge of leading a young team. Nor did he limit his leadership to the court. When Oriakhi endured a brutal slump late in the regular season, he bombarded Walker with text messages asking for help. Walker responded every time, gently reminding Oriakhi to stop thinking so much and start playing instinctively. "He told me, 'You're too good to be having the nights you're having,' " Oriakhi says. "He said, 'We need you.' He said, 'I need you.' When he told me that, it really got to me. It changed everything."
Walker isn't always serious, though. He teases Oriakhi mercilessly about his dancing, which Oriakhi considers a good-luck ritual before the Huskies play. Oriakhi says Walker believes he is the team's best dancer, and with good reason. As a child Walker was such an accomplished break dancer that he joined a performance troupe and danced at Harlem's Apollo Theater. Of course Oriakhi believes a trained dancer shouldn't be allowed to compare his abilities to those of dabblers. "He's got some moves. I'm not going to lie," Oriakhi says. "He's pretty smooth."
While Walker saved his best moves for the Big Dance, he warmed up by dominating the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. UConn entered the tournament having lost four of five games and in ninth place in the 16-team Big East. Walker snapped UConn from its funk with 26 points in the opener against conference doormat DePaul. The next day he scored 28 points without hitting a three-pointer in a win against Georgetown. A day later against top-seeded Pittsburgh, Walker made his signature play.
With the score tied at 74 and time running out, Walker had two options on the final play: shoot or whip the ball to forward Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, who had set a screen on Pitt guard Brad Wanamaker and drifted out on the left wing. When Wanamaker stayed with Coombs-McDaniel and 6' 11" Panthers center Gary McGhee switched onto Walker, the UConn guard made his decision. His crossover felled McGhee like timber, and the big man watched from the ground as Walker stepped back and drilled a shot from the top of the key to give the Huskies a 76--74 win. Said Walker, "I wanted to take that shot."