There are those concerned whether UConn will have anything left in the tank for next week’s NCAA tournament — when the stakes are truly at their highest — and whether this Huskies team will run out of gas following a five-games-in-five-days Big East tournament run.
There are those who wonder if UConn wouldn’t have been better served by losing on Friday night in the semifinals, to head back to Storrs and get the extra day of rest prior to going into the Big Dance.
Don’t try telling that to Kemba Walker or his teammates.
“This is the best tournament in the world,” Walker said after playing all 45 minutes in UConn’s 76-71 overtime victory against Syracuse in the Big East semifinals. “It’ll definitely help us in the seeding for the NCAA tournament.”
But seeding isn’t what this is all about.
“If you want to be tough, it’s got to start in your neighborhood,” UConn Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun said. “There’s something special about winning your neighborhood, those are the battles you want to win.”
For those who question the validity and importance of conference tournaments, come down to Madison Square Garden and take in the Big East tourney.
“To say you’re the best team in the beat conference in the country,” UConn sophomore big man Alex Oriakhi said. “It speaks for itself.”
No one has ever pulled off the feat of winning five games in five days. Pittsburgh won four games in four days in 2008 and Syracuse did the same in 2006.
UConn will have the opportunity to make history on Saturday night.
It’s the ultimate marathon, maybe even more difficult than getting through six games to cut down the nets in the NCAA tournament.
“I agree with that,” Walker said. “It’s different basketball. Very physical. If you’re not a part of this league, you wouldn’t know.”
The 6-foot Walker was spectacular in the win over Syracuse — Player-of-the-Year good — as he finished with 33 points on an efficient 9 of 18 shooting, a dozen rebounds, six steals and five assists in the victory.
“He’s as good a player as there is in college basketball right now,” ‘said ‘Cuse coach Jim Boeheim.
“I’m not tired,” Walker said. “I feel great.”
He’s 20 years old.
He used to play three games a day back when he was traveling the summer circuit with the Gauchos, a New York outfit that goes all around the country to national tournaments.
Boeheim said he fully believes Walker could play eight consecutive nights without any drop-off.
Even if Walker starts to believe he’s slightly fatigued, which is legitimate for a guy who has been on the court for all but eight minutes over the last four days, Calhoun will do his best to fool him.
“Deceive. Lie. Anything it takes to convince them,” Calhoun said after his Huskies advanced to the Big East championship game.
“That’s where mental toughness comes into play,” Oriakhi added.
UConn nearly blew this one, though. The Huskies had a six-point lead with 25 seconds left, but Scoop Jardine knocked down a couple of three-pointers to send it to overtime.
The last time these two teams met in this venue was a couple years ago, and there were six overtimes before the Orange came away with a 127-117 victory that stretched well into the morning.
“I didn’t want to go into another six overtimes," said Walker, who struggled as a freshman in that game. “I was mad we went to the first overtime. As soon as the first overtime came, I thought about six. I wanted the win and didn’t want to go to another one and another one."
While Walker’s legs appeared worn in overtime on Friday night, it was Huskies freshman Jeremy Lamb who made his presence felt in the extra period and knocked down the final two buckets of the game to give UConn the win.
After a seven-year layoff from the Big East’s final day of action, Calhoun had no thoughts of going home early in an effort to save his team for the Big Dance.
“We’re not going to be tired,” Calhoun said.
Walker repeated the same words just prior to posing for a photo opportunity with former President Bill Clinton.
Then he walked out of the arena — with a Big East title within his grasp.