Thursday, April 14, 2011

Kemba Walker Won't Be Back But UConn Shouldn't be Taken Lightly Next Season

By Charlie Scaturro

Photo Credit:Streeter Lecka/Getty Images North America
There were plenty of brutal moments that made UConn's 53-41 victory over Butler in the National Championship game almost an unwatchable sporting event (I wasn't sure those existed until this game).  For good reason, most of the criticism about this game was derived from the fact that neither team played particularly well on what was the biggest stage of the college basketball season. 

By now, we've been bombarded with the statistics which back up what we all witnessed on the court, and there's no need to rehash what was an impossibly anti-climatic ending to one of the most exciting sporting events in the world. 

As if what transpired on the court wasn't enough, Jim Nantz's interview with Kemba Walker during the trophy presentation was certainly the icing on the cake.  With Walker holding the National Championship trophy and having just completed one of the most incredible runs through a college basketball postseason in recent memory, the best thing Nantz could come up with was to ask him about May 8th, which happens to be the deadline for college players to withdraw their names from consideration in the NBA Draft.

Forget about the fact that Nantz didn't even let Walker answer the question, because Walker's reaction told you everything you needed to know about his intentions.  He didn't mention the NBA, but the smile which formed on Walker's face directly after Nantz said May 8th, seemed to say, "I've had possibly the greatest individual season in UConn history, just led my team to the Big East and National Championships, I'll be getting my degree in a few weeks, and I'll be a first round pick in a fairly watered down 2011 NBA Draft."

In other words, there's pretty much nothing left for Walker to accomplish in college and even though the probable NBA lockout seems to be affecting many players decisions about going pro, the time is right for him to leave UConn.

Walker recently announced that he's declaring for the NBA Draft and there's no doubt that a lot of production is going with him.  His 23.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 1.9 steals per game will leave a huge void on the Huskies roster. 

But Walker's presence meant a lot more to UConn than just his production.  Not only was he the emotional leader of a very young ball club, he also made life easier on the entire team (both on and off the court) starting with Jim Calhoun and trickling down to the last guy on the bench. 

Photo Credit:Streeter Lecka/Getty Images North America

Gone will be Walker's gaudy numbers and leadership but there are plenty of reasons to believe that UConn will still be a force to contend with next season.

With the exception of Walker, the only player that UConn doesn't return who averaged more than 10 minutes per game this season is Charles Okwandu.  Okwandu was a solid low post shot blocker but his departure certainly isn't a huge loss for the Huskies. 
Other than that, Calhoun will have the rest of this season's team back, including the impressive trio of Jeremy Lamb, Alex Oriakhi, and Shabazz Napier.

All three players bring a little something different to next season's team and will make a great foundation for the Huskies to build off what happened this past season.

The conversation certainly starts with Lamb a 6'5'' swingman with a 7'0'' wingspan who emerged during the second half of his freshman season as the heir to Kemba Walker's throne.

Lamb's ability to affect the game in so many different ways will no doubt cause UConn's opponents a lot of trouble next season as he continues to improve and add muscle to his frame.  Lamb's already proven to be a threat from beyond the arc (nearly 37 percent this season overall and over 50 percent in the tournament) and he's also capable of taking the ball to the basket where he can finish with a nearly unstoppable floater in the lane.  Because of his length, Lamb can be a terror in the passing lanes and he's also a great on-ball defender as Butler's Shelvin Mack found out the hard way in the National Championship game.

Lamb has all the makings of a superstar at the collegiate level but Alex Oriakhi, who continued to improve throughout his sophomore season on both sides of the court, definitely gives Jim Calhoun an intimidating interior presence.  Oriakhi is a freakishly long big man who stands 6'9'' and sports a muscular 240-pound frame.  At times this season (see games against Kentucky, Michigan State, Texas, Villanova, Syracuse, and Butler) Oriakhi was an extremely effective rebounder who also used his athleticism and strength to convert on opportunities around the basket.              

But as many young big men tend to do, Oriakhi struggled with his consistency during stretches this season.  Fortunately for UConn, he will be a junior next season and after two years of Big East experience and playing a big role in an NCAA Championship, there's absolutely no reason why Oriakhi can't be a consistent force on both offense and defense thanks to a rapidly expanding post game as well as his ability to finally harness all of his immense physical gifts. 

Then there's Shabazz Napier, who is probably the least heralded of the trio but just might be the most skilled player on the team.  During his freshman season, Napier came off the bench and gave the Huskies a very versatile option at the point, which allowed Walker to play off the ball.  It's no coincidence that UConn was often at it's best when Napier was on the floor and his hustle, defense, amazing quickness, and playmaking skills were invaluable.
Photo Credit: Pool/Getty Images North America
Not that he got to showcase it very much as a freshman, but Napier can also be an explosive scorer who possesses that rare ability to takeover a game.  Napier often deferred to teammates this season but his performances against Notre Dame, Texas, Louisville, and West Virginia showed what he is capable of doing in the near future for the Huskies.

In addition to their big three, UConn also returns a nice crop of supporting players which includes Roscoe Smith, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, Tyler Olander and Niels Giffey, who should provide some backup for the aforementioned UConn stars.  Experience might be overrated (Butler's performance during the National Championship is proof of that) but almost every player on next year's team will know how difficult it is and how much work it takes to reach the top of college basketball and this knowledge should serve UConn well next season.      

Incoming freshman, Ryan Boatright, whose scouting report could easily be confused with Kemba Walker's, will add another dimension to this UConn team and should help soften the blow of losing one of the most dominant players in the country.

Even with all of their returning talent and a player like Boatright coming aboard, things will obviously be more difficult for everyone on UConn without Walker who demanded so much attention from opposing teams.  At the same time, it's clear that the guys around him, namely Lamb, Oriakhi, and Napier have gained invaluable experience this season and should be ready to step up and fill the Bronx native's big shoes as the Huskies try to defend their title.

Does this team look like a contender to take home another National Championship without Kemba Walker?

Probably not right now, but then again, you would've said the same thing about last year's team. 

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