STORRS, Conn. -- UConn point guard Kemba Walker, the undisputed leader of this year's youthful Huskies, sat in the team's weight room answering questions after their uneven exhibition-game performance against American International College. Each response was delivered in upbeat, politically safe tones -- until one reporter asked whether the Big East media poll, in which the Huskies were picked 10th, had gotten anyone's attention.
"Yup," Walker answered without hesitation. "Definitely."
This season, UConn is in the unusual position of underdog. That suits coach Jim Calhoun just fine, and his players are following their coach's lead.
"A lot of people doubt us right now, but I think on our end, it's making us work hard," Walker said. "Like coach said [in the postgame press conference], we want to be the hardest-working team in America."
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Effort will only take UConn so far, though. If the Huskies want claw their way back into the NCAAs, they really need a group of freshmen to develop quickly, and expectations are high for guard Shabazz Napier, wing Jeremy Lamb and forwards Tyler Olander and Roscoe Smith. But the veterans still need to carry the load, starting first and foremost with Walker, a preseason first-team all-league selection who could lead the Big East in scoring. In an effort to stop teams from zoning the Huskies to death, the junior floor general said he put in significant work on his jump shot over the summer, and the early results looked good against American International. After being a piece of both a Final Four team (2008-09) and one that disappointed (last season), Walker is ready for his role in the spotlight.
"It's a good feeling to know that guys look up to me," Walker said. "I'm willing to do what it takes. If I have to score one night, [or] if guys are scoring and I just got to get guys involved, I'm willing to do whatever it takes just to win."
There isn't an established secondary option behind Walker yet, so while the underclassmen find their footing, 7-footer Charles Okwandu and guard Donnell Beverley will need to step up, especially in early nonleague games that could be crucial to at-large hopes. (Okwandu will receive some help in the post when German import Enosch Wolf becomes eligible in January.)
Walker believes these Huskies will eventually develop into a more dynamic, flexible team than last year's, even after losing the offensive contributions of Jerome Dyson and Stanley Robinson.
"I see it coming from everybody, more penetrating, getting guys open shots," Walker said about where points will come from. "I think pretty much everybody can hit open shots, especially when we put Roscoe Smith at the 4. ... We're a very versatile team out there and I think it's going to be difficult to guard us."
After the exhibition game, Calhoun noted that Walker would be playing a lot of minutes most nights, and that the staff would have to take careful note as to what works in the rare moments he won't be on the floor. Still, Calhoun remains optimistic about his young team, one that should be able to play more up-tempo and create more on-ball pressure defensively.
"We have a good group. I think we're more talented than people think we are," Calhoun said. "Who knows? A young team could fall apart a little bit, but I truly don't expect it to."