With 18.2 seconds left in overtime, UConn trailed Texas, 81-80, in Austin last Friday. Everyone in the building knew who was getting the ball. That didn’t matter in the slightest.
Connecticut’s junior guard Kemba Walker took the inbounds pass, ran down the clock, crossed over to his left, stepped back and calmly banked in a jumper with 5.1 seconds left, giving the Huskies a tough road victory over the No. 12 team in the nation.
Walker’s last-second heroics were merely another iteration of the magic he’s shown this season. At the Maui Invitational, Walker led Connecticut to the title by putting up a staggering 90 points in three games, which included victories over top-10 teams Michigan State and Kentucky. For the season, Walker is averaging 25 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals per game. He’s second in the nation in scoring, trailing only Brigham Young University’s super shooter, senior guard Jimmer Fredette.
Yet the hype around Walker’s hot start has largely dissipated over the last month, as UConn lost two of its first three games in Big East play and Walker’s shooting percentage has taken a plunge. Over the last five games, Walker has shot only 36.4 percent from the field. In the two losses against Pitt and Notre Dame, he made only 18 of 50 shots. Even against Texas, Walker shot a dreadful 8-of-27 from the field. The national attention has begun to shift toward other players with more efficient stat lines, such as Fredette, Ohio State’s freshman forward Jared Sullinger and Duke’s senior guard Nolan Smith.
Yet I find Walker’s recent performances to be as impressive as his play earlier in the season. Remember that the surprise factor is gone forever. Every team now plays UConn with the knowledge that they are facing the best player in the nation and they are determined to shut him down. Defenses are keying in on him with constant double teams and help defense.
And even as Walker’s shooting percentages have declined, he’s still making enormous contributions in other areas. He’s one of the better rebounding guards in the country and continues to put up assists even as he’s asked to be Connecticut’s primary scorer. On the defensive side of the ball, Walker is a pest, averaging over two steals per game, including five against a very disciplined Pitt team. Perhaps most impressively of all, Walker is averaging merely 2.2 turnovers per game despite handling the ball on nearly every offensive possession.
But skeptics might ask why Walker is shooting at such a high volume even when his shots aren’t going down. The simple answer is that he has to.
To put it mildly, the Huskies don’t have reliable offensive options around Walker. Alex Oriakhi, the talented sophomore big man who started the season strong, has repeatedly failed to show up in big games. Against Pitt, Notre Dame and Texas, Oriakhi shot 6-of-22 from the field for a combined 19 points. The rest of the roster is incredibly inexperienced and wildly inconsistent, with five freshmen all seeing major minutes for Huskies Head Coach Jim Calhoun. In fact, if you exclude Walker and Oriakhi, the Huskies are shooting under 42 percent from the field on the season.
Like Georgetown alumnus Allen Iverson during his days on the Philadelphia 76ers, Walker is forced to carry an otherwise mediocre team every night. Take Walker off the roster and No. 9 UConn would struggle to finish in the top 10 of the Big East. With Walker, Connecticut is in the top 10 of the country and could contend for the Big East title.
After losing three of its top four scorers from last year to graduation, UConn was expected to be in rebuilding mode this season. In the Big East preseason coaches’ poll, the Huskies were picked to finish 10th in the conference. And who could blame the coaches, with seven of UConn’s 14 players being freshmen and another two being walk-ons with a combined 10 minutes of game experience?
Walker is singlehandedly making that prediction look ridiculous. Every night, he gives an inexperienced team that’s thin on talent a chance to beat anyone in the nation. Until you can find me another player in the country who can do that, Kemba Walker is the national player of the year.
Parimal Garg is a senior in the College. Taking the Court appears in every other Friday edition of Hoya Sports.