UConn sending message to doubters
The UConn players can’t escape it.
Maui was a fluke; the Huskies surely would fall back to the abyss anticipated prior to this season when they were picked to finish 10th in the Big East.
"Definitely,” UConn star Kemba Walker said after scoring 24 points, including the game-winner, in Monday's 61-59 win over No. 7 Villanova. "We’ve heard that all year long.”
"We’ve heard it all,” teammate Alex Oriakhi added. "We’re too young and we’re not good enough.”
Jim Calhoun’s team got out of the gates with a shocking Maui Invitational crown that included wins over a pair of ranked teams, Kentucky and Michigan State.
But Walker couldn’t possibly carry this team, one that was starting Charles Okwandu and a pair of anonymous freshmen in Niels Giffey and Jeremy Lamb. It all would come crashing down in Storrs in due time.
The naysayers thought they had their proof after the Huskies’ first three Big East games — a loss at Pittsburgh, an overtime victory at home over South Florida and a loss at Notre Dame. The near-loss to South Florida prompted Walker to tweet, “UConn Huskies.”
"People were saying we’re not going to keep it up and we’re overrated,” Walker said of what prompted the tweet.
A week after his tweet, Walker hit the game-winner with five seconds left in overtime for a one-point victory at 12th-ranked Texas.
And he did it again Monday afternoon against Villanova, hitting a floater with 2.5 seconds remaining.
"They’re good,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "And Kemba’s great.”
That’s been the recipe thus far, and it’s been just enough to keep Calhoun’s eighth-ranked Huskies in the top 10, where no one saw fit to place them prior to the season.
Last season was a mess that concluded with an 18-16 record and an appearance in the NIT. Calhoun lost Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson and Gavin Edwards, three of the team’s leading scorers.
Then Ater Majok, the forward from Australia by way of the Sudan who Calhoun had touted, left the team six weeks prior to the start of practice.
There were plenty who felt that Calhoun’s health, an issue the past few years, wouldn’t hold up under the stress of a team that couldn’t compete in the Big East.
"We were more talented last year,” Oriakhi acknowledged. "But we play harder this year. We play with a chip on our shoulder.”
It’s worked to the tune of a 15-2 record and as many quality victories as anyone in the entire country — four ranked teams now have fallen prey to the Huskies following the victory over Villanova.
Walker has continued to shoulder the load, averaging 25.5 points. Oriakhi has regained the form he displayed in Maui and is averaging nearly a double-double, and the young players such as Lamb, Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith have shown flashes.
"These guys don’t play like freshmen,” Oriakhi said.
Even after Walker’s latest heroics — splitting a double-team and hitting a runner in the closing seconds — there will be plenty who remain skeptical and wait for the Huskies to free-fall.
"People will still doubt us,” Walker said. "I’m not sure why, but I know they will. Everyone will still say we’re a one-man team. The haters will still hate.”
Walker is fine with that. He’ll continue to check Twitter for ammunition to take back to his teammates.
"I love it,” he said. "It just gives us motivation.”
Thus far, it’s worked. However, Walker and his coach are aware the schedule gets more difficult with Tennessee, Marquette, Louisville and Syracuse on the horizon.
But Calhoun laughs at those who still wait for the other shoe to drop.
"We’re 15-2 with 13 games left,” Calhoun said. "We’d better fall pretty quick.”