STORRS, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut will stumble into the Big East tournament fresh from NCAA sanctions and losses in four of its last five games.
The No. 21 Huskies, who were ranked as high as No. 4 earlier this season, had a chance to secure a first-round tournament bye, but blew a five-point lead to Notre Dame with 4 minutes left at home Saturday, eventually losing to the Irish, 70-67.
So UConn (21-9, 9-9 Big East) instead fell to the ninth seed and will play DePaul (7-23, 1-17) in the tournament’s first game on Tuesday. That’s a team the Huskies defeated 82-62 on Jan. 15.
Star guard Kemba Walker said he’s disappointed with UConn’s finish, but prefers to look at the season as a whole. For a team that has no seniors and three freshman playing significant roles, 21 wins and an almost certain NCAA berth is something he says he would have signed on for in October.
“I thought we had a great season,” Walker said. “We had some wins where we showed a lot of maturity and we know we had some losses where we could have won. But, we couldn’t finish down the stretch.”
Walker had a great season, likely the junior’s last in Storrs. He averaged more than 23 points, five rebounds and four assists, putting himself into the discussion for Big East and national player of the year. Walker said he thinks Notre Dame’s Ben Hansbrough will get the conference award, and he’s fine with that.
“I thought teams did a great job stopping me at times, and guys had their game plans against me,” he said. “But, for the most part, I wanted to get coach’s respect and I think that’s what I did.”
Coach Jim Calhoun said to be successful in the postseason, UConn will need get more help from Walker’s supporting cast. He’s just not sure who can step up and help.
“We said yesterday, very honestly, ‘Who is our second-best player?’ And they couldn’t figure it out,” Calhoun said. “So how are we going to?”
Calhoun said he believes his freshmen — Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith — have all hit what is known as the “freshman wall,” struggling late during a longer season than they are used to playing.
“Most of them, by the way, have other young guys going through similar experiences beside them, so it’s not real good,” Calhoun said. “Alex (Oriakhi) has hit a sophomore wall. Alex is too good a player to play the way he’s playing.”
Oriakhi is averaging almost 10 points and eight rebounds a game, but just four points and five boards over his past three games.
Lamb, however, is perhaps the biggest concern going into Tuesday. He twisted a knee against Notre Dame on Saturday, did not practice on Sunday, but hopes to play vs. the Blue Demons.
Lamb scored a career high 24 points at Marquette in late January, part of an eight-game stretch in which he averaged more than 16 points. He has scored in double figures just once since, averaging 7 points over Connecticut’s last seven.
“I don’t think I’m more tired,” he said, “but I’ve got a couple more like little tweaks.”
Walker said he believes one good game, or even one good shot could get Lamb going again. And Calhoun said he’s hopeful the Big East tournament will be a fresh start for everyone on his team.
“It ends up being a new season for you,” he said. “You’ve seen it in the Big East tournament and you’ve seen it in the NCAA tournament. Teams get a little bit going, get on a roll, feel good about themselves, good things happen and the next thing you know, they are going on. A couple of our guys hope they can get some new life, to be honest with you.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)