NOT MUCH WAS EXPECTED OF FRESHMAN JEREMY LAMB when the 2010--11 season began. His name barely appeared in newspaper accounts of Connecticut's first exhibition game, in November. He had a total of just 11 points in the Huskies' three-game championship run in the Maui Invitational later that month. He was benched over his defense during a Jan. 4 loss at Notre Dame that dropped the Huskies to 1--2 in Big East play.
Three months later the 6' 5" shooting guard is known across the college basketball landscape as one of the keys to UConn's stirring run to its third national championship. The late Marquette coach and wit, Al McGuire, famously said that the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores, but for the Huskies the best thing about Lamb was that he became a seasoned freshman.
By mid-January it was clear that something was brewing in Storrs. Connecticut, picked just 10th in the Big East preseason poll and considered a marginal NCAA tournament candidate, was sitting at 15--2 with impressive wins against nonconference opponents Michigan State and Kentucky. Junior point guard Kemba Walker had become one of the nation's best players, and sophomore forward-center Alex Oriakhi had developed into a capable inside player, but the young Huskies badly needed another scoring option. That's when Lamb emerged.
The son of former VCU player Rolando Lamb, whose shot in the 1984 NCAA tournament beat coach Jim Calhoun's Northeastern team, Jeremy had chosen UConn over schools closer to his home in Norcross, Ga., such as Georgia, Clemson and Texas. He was a late bloomer, averaging 12.5 points in 14 minutes as a sixth man in his junior year at Norcross High, but a breakout performance that summer at the Peach Jam tournament in South Carolina put him on the national recruiting radar. A Scout.com profile noted that his lithe body had a long way to go to be ready for major college competition but that his skills were promising. One area that still needed improvement when he got to Storrs? Shooting off the dribble. That part of Lamb's game blossomed over the latter part of this season and turned the Huskies into a true contender.
First, though, Lamb needed to get back into Coach Calhoun's good graces, and that started with his effort on defense. At the time of that January benching, Lamb admitted he needed to continue to work on playing at full speed more often. He took Calhoun's criticism—and the demotion—constructively. "I just worked harder and harder," Lamb said. "I know [Calhoun's] not going to settle. That's the kind of coach you need."
Calhoun is also the kind of coach who knows what he needs, and he needed Lamb to score. After playing the freshman for just 15 minutes combined in an overtime win at Texas and a home victory over Rutgers, Calhoun pushed Lamb back into the mix at DePaul on Jan. 15 and was rewarded with a 13-point, six-rebound, four-assist effort in an easy victory. Calhoun professed no surprise. "I've said from the first day of practice [that] Jeremy Lamb is going to be a very good offensive player," he said.
The seeds of Lamb's emergence were planted in that DePaul game, and his 14-point, eight-rebound performance two days later in a 61--59 win over Villanova had his teammates and coach believing that Lamb was ready to break out. "Before DePaul, Lamb wasn't really playing his game," Oriakhi said. "I would tell him, 'Just be aggressive. You're in the gym every night, you work hard, just have confidence. He was aggressive [against Villanova].' He looked to attack, he looked to score, and it worked out for him."
"His stature in [the Villanova] game, his body language, was absolutely outstanding," said Calhoun. "He played like a guy who you see kind of growing up."
Those two performances kicked off a run in which Lamb went for double digits in 19 of the Huskies' 25 games leading into the national championship game, including the first 10 postseason games. Grown up, indeed.
Quietly effective in the subregional, where he shot a total of 11 for 16 from the field in wins over Bucknell and Cincinnati, Lamb raised his play in the next rounds. First he added to Walker's 36 points with a 9-for-11, 24-point performance in the 74--67 win over No. 2 seed San Diego State. Then he had 19 points in the 65--63 win over Arizona. Only one other UConn player besides Walker or Lamb scored in double figures in either game—freshman Shabazz Napier, with 10 against the Wildcats. Opponents came to understand that the Huskies now had two dangerous scoring options.