Because he was in such demand by the media, Kemba Walker was the last man to board the UConn bus following the Huskies' 84-67 win over Kentucky in the championship game of last week's Maui Invitational. Walker scored 90 points in the Huskies' three wins, which included a semifinal upset of then-No. 2 Michigan State, making him the easy choice for tournament MVP. But for all the cheers he heard inside the Lahaina Civic Center, the best ovation was yet to come.
"When he got on the bus, his teammates stood and clapped," UConn coach Jim Calhoun told me on Sunday. "I've never experienced that as a coach. They clapped. But that's the kind of respect they have for him. He works hard, he's tight with the young guys, and he's obviously playing the best basketball of his life."
Actually, Walker, a 6-foot-1 junior guard, is arguably playing the best basketball of anyone in the country. His brilliant run in Maui came on the heels of a 42-point performance in an 89-73 win at home over Vermont on Nov. 17. Walker's 30.0 points per game leads the nation, and he is also putting up 4.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. Most important, he has led UConn, which came into the season unranked and bordering on irrelevant, to a 5-0 start. On Monday, the Huskies moved into the AP poll for the first time this season at No. 7.
Walker's transformation since we last saw him in UConn's second-round NIT loss last March has been remarkable. During his first two years in Storrs, the only consistent feature of his game has been his inconsistency. When he was off his game, his outside shooting vacillated from poor to atrocious. (He made just 27.1 percent from three-point range as a freshman; his overall field goal percentage as a sophomore was 40.3.) And while Walker has always been exceptionally quick, his inability to change speeds and adopt the nuances of playing point guard too often rendered him ineffective.
Walker worked extremely hard to shore up those deficiencies in the offseason. While attending summer school classes at UConn, he worked out twice a day with Ben Wood, the head student manager. "It was all shooting," Walker said. "Last year a lot of people would back up off of me or go under screens, and I didn't have the confidence I needed to shoot well. It was frustrating because I knew that if I could keep defenses honest, we would have had a few more wins."
When he wasn't in Storrs, Walker was hitting the circuit for elite college players -- three different Nike camps featuring Deron Williams, Chris Paul and LeBron James, and then two stints (one in Las Vegas, the other in New York City) practicing against the NBA players who competed for Team USA at the FIBA World Championship. While going up against other college players at the Nike camps, Walker gained confidence from seeing his shooting work pay off. Against the pros, Walker took pride in the way he handled defensive pressure, and he learned from guys like Rajon Rondo how to slow down from time to time to play a more sophisticated floor game.
The result was a steady but steep progression that has been very much in evidence the first four weeks of Walker's junior season. "He would work, then test it out [at a camp], and then come back to school knowing what adjustments he had to make," Calhoun said. "Right now he sees the game at a much slower pace than he did before. He has all kinds of different gears, he has a midrange shot, which we're always telling guys to work on, and he can turn it on and off when he wants to."
He has also embraced his role as the team's leader. It began last June, when Walker called the incoming freshmen to let them know that he was going to be on campus with them all summer, making sure they were working as hard as he was. UConn's freshman class was unheralded by the program's standards (Rivals.com ranked the class 15th in the country), but the youngsters have outperformed their expectations. Against Kentucky, Niels Giffey, a 6-7 swingman from Germany, had 14 points, while 6-foot guard Shabazz Napier hounded UK freshman Brandon Knight into a horrendous 3-for-15 shooting performance. Sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi has also been impressive in the early going. He is averaging 13.4 points and 12 rebounds per game and has already posted three double doubles.
As great as Walker has been, he and Calhoun both understand the hard part is yet to come. After the Huskies dispatched Kentucky, Calhoun was quick to remind them that they are still the same team that trailed Vermont at home by three points, and that fell behind Wichita State in the quarterfinals in Maui by eight points with eight minutes to play. "Nobody in the country is playing any better than Kemba, but I'm not the only person who knows that," Calhoun said. "Everybody who sees him is going to try to keep him out for the game, so we've got to come up with another answer."
He was quick to add, "Although Kemba is a heck of an answer right now."
I had the pleasure of spending two days in Atlantic City last week providing color commentary for HD Net at the Legends Classic. Syracuse beat Georgia Tech to take the championship, while UTEP defeated Michigan in the consolation game. Here are some quick takes on those four teams after watching them on consecutive nights:
• Syracuse has been winning ugly so far this season, but at least the team's winning. The Orange are going to have to develop a blue-collar, Pitt-like identity if they are going to challenge for the Big East crown. Kris Joseph played his best basketball of the season in Atlantic City, scoring a combined 41 points on 13-for-21 shooting in the wins, but it was Rick Jackson who deservedly walked off with the MVP award after grabbing 14 rebounds in the final against Georgia Tech. The Orange also got a terrific boost off the bench in the final from two freshmen, Dion Waiters and C.J. Fair, who combined for 23 points. The bottom line is that points are not going to come easily for the Orange this season. They're gonna have to get it done with dirty work, and that will take some time to develop.
Meanwhile, Syracuse's much-heralded 7-foot freshman center, Fab Melo, was once again a total non-factor. He started against Michigan, but after he let Wolverines center Jordan Morgan beat him for an offensive rebound and putback, Jim Boeheim stuck Melo on the bench and never put him back in. He played four minutes against Michigan and had zero points in 10 minutes against Georgia Tech. You'd expect a guy who was voted Big East preseason Freshman of the Year to average a modest eight points and nine rebounds a game, but those are Melo's
When I asked Melo after the game if his confidence was hurting, he smiled and said, "Of course." But I liked his positive attitude. "When I was in high school, it was easy for me to score because I was so much bigger," he said. "The defense is the hardest part. But now I know how hard I have to work, and I know it's going to get better. It's just going to take some time."
• Georgia Tech sophomore guard Brian Oliver was sensational in the final. (He is no relation to the Brian Oliver who starred for Georgia Tech's 1990 Final Four team.) Oliver scored a career-high 32 points and made 6-for-11 from three-point land against Syracuse, several of which were well beyond NBA range. But the Yellow Jackets could not answer Syracuse's toughness. Junior guard Iman Shumpert, who did a great job defensively on UTEP's Randy Culpepper in the semifinal, was an offensive no-show in the final. He had 11 points, but he was 0-for-5 from three-point range and many of his points came in the final minutes when the outcome was pretty much decided. Georgia Tech has some good young big men, but they did not provide any kind of low post presence against the Syracuse zone. If the Jackets can't find some way to throw it into the post during the ACC season, I fear it's going to put more defensive pressure on their guards than they'll be able to handle.
• At 5-11, Culpepper is a dynamic athlete and a very dangerous long-range shooter. Yet, UTEP coach Tim Floyd sat him on the bench for the final minutes of the Miners' semifinal against Georgia Tech because he didn't like Culpepper's shot selection. Floyd was still ticked enough the next night that he didn't start Culpepper against Michigan, and he stayed on the bench for the first six minutes. Culpepper handled the demotion with great maturity, and once he got in the game he exploded for 24 points to lead UTEP to a 65-56 win.
I also liked what I saw out of 6-7 senior point guard Julyan Stone, though I'm mystified as to why he has not developed more of an offensive game. If he did, he'd be a surefire pro. UTEP does not have quality big men, but I think Floyd has himself a nice prospect in 6-10 freshman John Bohannon. At 210 pounds, Bohannon gets pushed around a lot in the paint, and like a lot of freshmen big men he commits some silly fouls. But he is coordinated and skilled, and he had 10 points and seven rebounds in just 21 minutes in the consolation win over Michigan.
• It's a shame Michigan let a golden opportunity for an upset slip away in Friday's semifinal against Syracuse -- losing 53-50 -- because by the time Saturday night came around this young team had dead legs. The Wolverines do not have a single senior on the roster, and given how much John Beilein's offense is predicated on three-point shooting, they're not going to beat any good teams going 5-for-29 from behind the arc. Freshman guard Tim Hardaway Jr. came into Atlantic City as the team's leading scorer, but he really struggled with his shooting and shot selection. He made four of his 20 attempts over the two nights. At 6-8, redshirt freshman Jordan Morgan is a tad undersized at center, but he's crafty and uses his body well. He'll be good down the road for this program, but given how physical and experienced the Big Ten is this season, that road is looking pretty long right now.
• You probably heard that Cal set a new standard for offensive ineptitude when it mustered just five first-half points in a loss to Notre Dame in the semifinals of the Old Spice Classic last Friday night. But Notre Dame wasn't much better. The Irish scored just 21 points in the first half and overall they were 1-for-20 from three-point range in the 57-44 win. It's a good thing the stands were nearly empty. Can you imagine paying money to watch that game?
• Calhoun also told me on Sunday that he anticipates getting the final decision on UConn's case from the NCAA's infractions committee in early January. "Some of the phone calls have been dismissed, so we're slowly getting some information back," he said. "I can't make any predictions, but I know we worked really hard on penalizing ourselves, and that's certainly within the range of what we would expect from the NCAA."
• UCLA freshman center Josh Smith isn't struggling quite as badly as Fab Melo is, but he has had his share of troubles to start the season. His main issue has been fouling -- Smith has committed four fouls in each of his first five games, and it took him just 13 minutes to do that against VCU. Smith is going to be a good player once he loses weight and learns how to play defense, but as Melo mentioned, big men usually have a tougher time adjusting as freshmen than guards.
• One veteran big man who really needs to step up his offensive game is Temple senior center Lavoy Allen. Owls coach Fran Dunphy keeps saying that he has been encouraging Allen to be more selfish in hunting for his shot, but I'm starting to wonder if it's just not in the kid's makeup to do that. Allen's scoring average is actually down a couple of points from last year to 9.5, and he had just 10 points in the Owls' loss to Texas A&M on Sunday. More troubling is that he has only taken nine free throws in the Owls' first five games.
• I think we're all in agreement that the commercial decals that litter the courts during early season tournaments have got to go. I'm sympathetic to the need for the folks who run these tournaments to generate revenue, but the decals look horrible. More important, they are a major injury waiting to happen because the players slip on them so often.
• North Carolina freshman Harrison Barnes' 0-for-12 performance against Minnesota in Puerto Rico two weeks ago got a lot of attention, but he wasn't much better Sunday night against the College of Charleston. Barnes made just three of his 12 shot attempts, and he was 0-for-4 from three. It looks to me like Barnes is trying to create too many shots for himself instead of getting his points within the flow of the offense. He is also settling for too many jumpers instead of driving to the goal. In the Tar Heels' win over UNC Asheville, Barnes played 33 minutes and did not attempt a free throw. Can't happen.
• Why do basketball coaches wear suits? Makes no sense to me. Makes even less sense that hockey coaches wear suits. Coaches in other sports wear gear that's more, uh, suitable.
• Minnesota guard Blake Hoffarber can win an NCAA championship, but to me he'll always be the guy who
• The best game of the season that nobody saw: Skidmore's seven-overtime victory over Southern Vermont. Only 142 people were in attendance to see the longest game in Division III history. Most remarkable of all is that Southern Vermont's Lance Spratling played all 75 minutes. He can be forgiven for going 0-for-13 from three-point range.
• Anyone else want to figure out college basketball right now? Iona is 2-3, but one of those wins was over Richmond ... which beat then-No. 10 Purdue by 11 points on Saturday night in Chicago. Obviously the Boilermakers' defense was subpar (Spiders guard Kevin Anderson hung 28 points on them), but Purdue also needs a lot more production from the point guard position. Lewis Jackson, a 5-9 junior, is averaging just 2.8 points a game, and he did not attempt a free throw against the Spiders.
• Virginia Tech guard Malcolm Delaney scores a lot of points, but as far as I can tell he doesn't do a whole lot to make his teammates better.
• It's disappointing that Duke is not playing a true road games against a tough nonconference opponent this season. The Blue Devils played Marquette and Kansas State in Kansas City, they're playing Butler in the Meadowlands and they're playing St. John's in Madison Square Garden. Even their game at Oregon on Saturday was at the Rose Garden in Portland instead of on campus in Eugene. Duke's lone nonconference true road game is at UNC Greensboro on December 29. That's hardly a spine tingler.
• That said, I guarantee Duke will not enter the NCAA tournament undefeated. These are college kids, not robots, and they will have a night or two where they just plain stink up the joint. So can we stop that silly talk before it gets started in earnest?
• How about Dayton losing 68-34 at Cincinnati over the weekend? Even Cal scores more points than that.
• It's not yet December, but it has already been a long season for the Pac-10. The two favorites, Washington and UCLA, stumbled in Maui and New York, respectively. Beyond that (and Cal's ineptitude against Notre Dame), the league has seen Arizona State lose to New Mexico, Oregon lose to San Jose State, Oregon State lose to Seattle and Texas Southern, Stanford lose to Murray State and Tulsa, and USC lose to Rider, Bradley and Nebraska.
• Likewise, the MAAC has fallen on hard times. Rider is the only school among the 10 in the league that currently has a winning record in nonconference play.
• Florida State's Chris Singleton may be a 6-9 forward, but he's leading the ACC and is fifth in the U.S. in steals at 3.4 per game. Just making sure you knew.
• Two mid-major gems you should catch if you get a chance: Keith Benson, a 6-11 senior center at Oakland, who is averaging 18.4 points and 11 rebounds while making 82 percent of his free throws. And Kenneth Faried, a 6-8 senior forward at Morehead State. He's averaging 18.5 points and is ranked second in the country in rebounding with 14 per game.
1. Duke (1)
I thought it would be more instructive to look at where I ranked these teams two weeks ago, as opposed to last week. Now that we've had a chance to see some good teams playing each other, you can see the impact that has had on my ballot.
I try my best to honor head-to-head results, but that will get increasingly difficult as the season wears on. The toughest decisions I had this week were figuring out where to rank Michigan State and Connecticut. Yes, UConn beat the Spartans in Maui, but I couldn't quite bring myself to rank the Huskies ahead of them -- even though I would have been justified based on what UConn did to Kentucky the next day. Another domino effect from UConn's two big wins was that I left Wichita State on my ballot. The Shockers fared better against UConn than anyone else in Maui, so I felt pretty justified in ranking them again.
Texas made an even bigger jump on my ballot than UConn, but that shows just how delicate this exercise is. The Longhorns made the leap based on their win over Illinois, but that game went to overtime. They could easily have lost and still been the same team, but they wouldn't be ranked nearly as high. On the flip side, I didn't completely drop Purdue out of my rankings just because of their loss to Richmond. That would have been an overreaction, and I actually think they're better than where I have them ranked. Still, I'm waiting for them to prove it on the court, and one more bad loss could knock them clear out of my Top 25.
As for teams knocking at the door this week, I was ready to rank Florida State if they beat Florida at home Sunday night, but they lost. I also gave BYU a hard look, but even though the Cougars are 6-0 they haven't beaten anybody good, and they needed a buzzer beater to get by Saint Mary's by one point.
Another team I'm watching closely is Arizona. Their loss to Kansas was a lot closer than the 87-79 final score would indicate. They play BYU at home on Dec. 11.