An upperclassman whose value climbs by the minute
For all the remarkable things Kemba Walker accomplished this season, almost single-handedly carrying UConn through nine straight elimination games and into the Final Four, the most surprising still might be that he even began it.
Guys that good rarely stick around college basketball long enough to become juniors, let alone graduate early, which only begins to explain why Walker came back. Granted, he spent most of the previous season deferring to UConn's three seniors, and his NBA prospects were a lot less certain a year ago - in no small part because of Walker's size, listed very generously as 6-foot-1.
But his return probably says as much about his coach, Jim Calhoun, as all those other factors combined.
''I know where he is in the draft right now, top 10 somewhere, and he probably needs, if the opportunity presents itself, to go,'' Calhoun said. ''That should be determined by our success, your success, your growth and how you mature as a player and a person.''
Ever since the NBA collective bargaining agreement stopped kids jumping from high school straight to the pros five years ago, the ''one-and-done'' phenomenon has turned the sport on its ear, especially at traditional powerhouse programs. Coaches such as Calhoun and Kentucky's John Calipari - his opponent in Saturday night's second semifinal and on the recruiting trail - have had to decide whether to recruit those players for whom college is little more than a yearlong prep school for the pros.
''Generally speaking, in the recruiting process, we're going to go after the best kid we can. If we start hearing, 'Coach, I'll only be there' ... well, we really don't talk that way at UConn.''
They certainly do at Kentucky, and not coincidentally, at Calipari's previous stop, Memphis.
''I don't like the 'one-and-done' rule, never have,'' said Calipari, who lost all five starters from last year's team - four of them freshmen, led by No. 1 overall pick John Wall - to the NBA. He figures to lose at least two more freshmen, Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones, from this edition.
''But my choice is to recruit players who aren't good enough,'' he added. ''I'm not doing that.''
The NCAA selection committee had no clue when they set up the brackets three weeks ago, but this most unpredictable tournament wound up delivering the most forward-looking Final Four ever.
The first semifinal between Virginia Commonwealth and Butler likely signals the arrival of mid-majors on a regular basis, suggesting one route to success is to recruit second-tier players who will stick around long enough to develop into experienced, cohesive squads that are especially dangerous in a one-and-out format. The Connecticut-Kentucky matchup, on the other hand, could well determine how the major powers should deal with a likely wave of upstarts - reloading and relying entirely on fresh talent every season, as Calipari does, or drawing the line at one-and-dones, as Calhoun has.
In a way, Walker has become Calhoun's best argument. The UConn coach has turned out a long line of topflight NBA players - among them, Ray Allen, Rip Hamilton, Ben Gordon and Rudy Gay. Although every one of them left school early, not one failed to put in at least two seasons.
Calipari can boast a long and equally impressive NBA roster - Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, to name a few - but almost every one left after his freshman season.
''I would coach Brandon Knight for the next 15 years. I don't want Brandon Knight to leave. I want him here,'' Calipari said. ''But at the end of the day, these guys will have their decisions they have to make.''
''Guess what?'' he said a moment later, almost defiant. ''By the end of the year, they were ready, I encouraged them to go. Because if it were my son, that's what I hope a coach would do.''
How things have changed: A smart coach once said the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. The worst thing about the best freshmen anymore is that they don't.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org