No one gave Kemba Walker and the UConn Huskies much of a chance this season — and rightfully so. No one figured Walker, a speedy point guard who made questionable decisions with the ball and couldn’t shoot from the perimeter, could do much with a team full of nine freshmen and sophomores.
But Walker has carried the Huskies to the championship game — and now he has help, as the kids have matured.
The Huskies have regained the swagger they temporarily lost at the end of the regular season. This is a team that has taken its cue from Walker — and believes it can beat anyone.
Winning five games in five consecutive days in the Big East tournament will do that to you.
Here are five reasons UConn will cut down the nets on Monday night after taking care of Butler:
1. Kemba: The nation’s top player through the first two months or so — and after The Jimmer stole the show in January and February — UConn’s junior guard has once again had no peer in the past month. He attracts so much attention from opposing defenses that he not only takes pressure off his young teammates but allows them to get open looks. Put the ball in Walker’s hands and he can make a play just about any time he wants. Butler’s Ronald Nored might be a terrific defender, but this lock-down guy hasn’t seen anyone like Kemba in his lifetime. There’s no fear in Kemba Walker, and his teammates feed off that.
2. Toughness: Butler is physically tough; the Bulldogs hammer you on the court. But this Connecticut group also is physically tough — and just as resilient, if not more so. The Huskies get it from Walker and their stubborn coach, Jim Calhoun, and it rubs off on all the youngsters. Most of the nation — and Reliant Stadium — will be pulling for Butler, and that’s just how Calhoun wants it. He thrives on the us-against-the-world mentality.
3. Jeremy Lamb: Butler doesn’t have an answer for this long and talented freshman from Georgia. He was somewhat passive against Kentucky but still managed to finish with 12 points and nine boards. Now the nerves are gone, and I don’t think the Bulldogs have anyone who can check Lamb. Look for him to shine in the most important game of the season.
4. The ‘Houn: I get all the talk about Brad Stevens. He’s one of the elite young coaches — heck, one of the best coaches period — in the country. But his resume still pales in comparison to Jim Calhoun’s. The Huskies’ 68-year-old leader has been through it all — and he also has won two national championships (1999, 2004). Calhoun has 854 career victories, Stevens 117.
5. Matt Howard’s tenacity: The Butler senior big man’s intensity and relentlessness is, for the most part, a major advantage. But Howard’s propensity to commit silly fouls is — and has been — a major concern throughout his career. He certainly has improved on it this year, but he was in foul trouble again Saturday vs. VCU. With Walker getting into the lane and long and athletic guys like Alex Oriakhi and Lamb attacking the glass, Howard could once again be a bystander for much of the game.