HOUSTON (AP) — Kemba Walker showed flashes of brilliance his first two seasons at Connecticut, putting up decent numbers, wobbling a few legs with his wicked crossover.
Good enough to earn him a place among UConn’s all-time greats? Hardly. Making the All-Big East third team doesn’t exactly send the bust makers digging for their chisels.
One incredible season has changed that.
Win or lose in Monday night’s NCAA championship game against Butler, Walker has earned single-name status up there with UConn icons Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Caron Butler and Emeka Okafor after one of the best individual seasons in college hoops history.
“He’s just Kemba now,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said Sunday. “If it’s just Ray, Caron, Rip, Mek, Ben (Gordon), it’s just Kemba now. That’s a great status to have.”
Walker has been an unlikely addition to the pantheon.
A standout high school player and playground legend from the Bronx, he had a typical grow-as-you-go start to his career in Storrs, averaging 8.9 points his first season, 14.6 as a sophomore. Walker doesn’t have the typical dominant-guy physique, either. It’s usually bigger guys or wings who carry teams, and at a lanky 6-foot-1, Walker is more Allen Iverson than Danny Manning.
Nothing has stopped him this season.
Starting at the Maui Invitational, where he outscored opposing teams by himself for stretches, Walker set out on a journey to make a name for himself and his team. He — and, consequently, the Huskies — went through a late-season funk, but responded with one of the greatest conference tournament performances ever, leading the Huskies to five wins in five days and into the NCAA tournament.
Walker has been brilliant in the bracket, scoring when he needs to, dishing when he’s not open, playing with a never-hurry-up confidence that tells his team and the one across the court that he’s in charge.
Averaging 23.7 points and 4.6 assists per game, Walker accounted for an almost-unheard-of 45 percent of the Huskies’ points this season and has them on the cusp of the program’s third national title.
BYU’s Jimmer Fredette got the national attention and player of the year awards, but if college basketball had an MVP, Walker likely would have been the runaway winner.
“I know Jimmer was able to get national player of the year and that’s definitely well-deserved, but I don’t see how Kemba didn’t get it leading such a young team, literally carrying us on his back and taking us to victory,” UConn sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi said.
Walker’s run to Reliant Stadium rivals some of the best seasons in college basketball history.
Pete Maravich had the greatest one from a scoring standpoint, setting Division I records for average (44.5) and total points (1,381) at Louisiana State, including three 60-point games.
Lew Alcindor was as dominating a force as there’s been in college basketball before he became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, setting a UCLA record with 56 points in his first varsity game before leading the Bruins to an undefeated season in 1967.
Bill Bradley single-handedly led Princeton to the Final Four in 1965; Bill Russell dominated without filling the stat sheet to lead San Francisco to its second straight title in 1956; and Indiana State’s Larry Bird took a bunch of underlings to the national title game in 1979. Manning set the NCAA tournament team-carrying standard in 1988, guiding the no-name Miracles to a title at Kansas.
Walker’s season fits not just because of his numbers, but how he did it.
He’s been more than just a go-to player, willing his team to victories and seizing the moment with a big shot, defender-splitting dish or run-him-down blocked shot, as he did against Kentucky in the national semifinals on Saturday.
For Walker, it doesn’t matter how it gets done as long as his team gets a win.
“For how much (attention) he gets and for how much people talk about him, he seems really unselfish,” said Butler’s Ronald Nored, one of the players who likely will get a turn at trying to stop Walker in the title game. “That’s really admirable. It’s great to have guys like that who are in our game.”
Walker has been just as valuable, if not moreso, off the court.
When the players are away from the watchful eye of Calhoun, Walker is like a cord back to the coach, making sure everyone keeps their focus. He also became a leader without announcing it, his cool-but-confident constitution naturally dropping his teammates in line behind him.
“(It) is an unusual gift that Kemba has,” Calhoun said. “It’s funny. He walked out of the breakfast room yesterday morning, we just finished our meal. There was Kemba and about six guys following him. It just so happened it ended up that way. It was just the way they were leaving, but I thought to myself as I saw that, that’s kind of who we are and what we are in many, many ways.”
Walker is an All-America player, the undisputed leader of an improbable run to the title game — the Huskies were picked 10th in the Big East preseason poll — and the most dynamic player this side of Jimmermania.
But does he deserve an invite to UConn’s one-name club?
“I don’t know yet,” Walker said. “I guess coming from (Calhoun), it’s a special honor. He’s coached some great players. We have a lot of great history in this program and to be mentioned with those guys is amazing.”
Win Monday night, and the conversation could start with one name: Kemba.