By SANTOSH VENKATARAMAN STATS Senior Writer 12/29/09
As Connecticut and Cincinnati get set to meet in their Big East opener, the matchup to watch is between two outstanding guards from New York City.
Kemba Walker and the No. 10 Huskies go on the road for the first time Wednesday night to face Lance Stephenson and Cincinnati in a marquee conference opener.
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Both players are in their first years as full-time starters, with Walker enduring some growing pains as a sophomore. Although his scoring average is up to 13.3 from 8.9 as a freshman, he’s shooting 40.0 percent after finishing his first season at 47.0.
“I think going into the Big East season we’ll do really good,” Walker said. “We just have to play hard every night, just play hard with a lot of enthusiasm and just have fun out there. When we are having fun and we are playing hard and smiling on the court, we are at our best.”
The Bronx native will get his first chance to face fellow McDonald’s All-American and Brooklyn native Stephenson, a freshman who is the all-time leading scorer in New York state high school basketball. Stephenson is the top scorer for Cincinnati (8-3) at 12.5 points per game and shares ballhandling duties with senior Deonta Vaughn.
Walker is considered the Huskies’ best defender and should see time against Stephenson, who is one of three first-year players to have started this season for the Bearcats.
Cincinnati’s second-leading scorer is sophomore Yancy Gates, who is averaging 11.1 points. Gates played four scoreless minutes in an 80-52 rout of Lipscomb on Dec. 19 before bouncing back with a game-high 16 points three days later in a 74-57 win over Winthrop.
“Right now, our strength is we have the talent to play with anybody,” Gates said. “When we are focused, we are good as anyone. I think our weaknesses are a little immaturity. We are a little young at times.”
Connecticut (9-2) has taken all five meetings against Cincinnati, winning 81-72 on Jan. 10 last season. The Huskies never trailed, shot 58.0 percent and overcame Vaughn’s 19 points and six assists.
The Bearcats, though, are 2-0 against ranked teams this season and 6-0 at home. They have limited their last three opponents to 34.9 percent shooting.
“There are a lot of positives about our team, and we definitely have some guys that know how to play in tough games and in the Big East,” coach Mick Cronin said. “You have to be happy with wins. It is hard to get these guys to focus every night.”
Connecticut enters on a three-game win streak after a 93-74 victory over Iona on Sunday. Stanley Robinson scored a season-high 29 and Walker added 14 points and seven assists.
The Huskies have two freshmen in their frontcourt – forward Ater Majok and center Alex Oriakhi – as they try to replace their top rebounders from a season ago – Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien.
“We’re putting new parts and pieces together as we go along,” coach Jim Calhoun said. “I think we’re getting better.”