STORRS, Conn. -- In the hallway outside UConn's locker room, after a hard-fought, last-second 61-59 win over Villanova, Jim Calhoun was asked, in numerous ways and levels of subtlety, if his team -- picked 10th in the Big East preseason poll -- is overachieving.
"We're 15-2 and we only have 13 games left," he said, "so we better fall pretty quick."
More than halfway through the season, with wins over Kentucky, Michigan State, Texas and the now 16-2 Wildcats, simply pointing to the team's record is becoming more and more of a fair answer. Still, questions persist, mostly because UConn still hasn't found a consistent third scorer from within its young supporting cast to help share the load.
We clearly know UConn has a star. If Kemba Walker's stature wasn't patently obvious, he sent a blunt reminder when, with a lightning-quick cut, he split a double-team and floated home the game-winning runner with 2.5 seconds to go. It was an All-American play by an All-American guard.
We also know the Huskies have a legitimate sidekick. With his 14 points and 12 rebounds, forward Alex Oriakhi notched his sixth double-double of the season and continues to provide a crucial, almost-nightly inside complement to Walker's perimeter exploits.
After that, though, this season has been a mixed bag. In the team's two losses, Oriakhi went for a total of eight points and seven rebounds, showing that UConn's margin for error has been very, very slim. That's why Jeremy Lamb's 14 points and eight boards on Monday may matter much more than just as a pivotal factor in a close victory.
From the start of the season, Calhoun had touted Lamb as perhaps the most likely source of additional offense, but the freshman struggled with his consistency, especially on defense, and eventually found himself pulled from the starting lineup. After playing 20 minutes or more in seven straight games, he logged just eight in the stirring comeback win at Texas and seven the next time out at Rutgers. Two nights ago, though, he rebounded with 13 points and six rebounds in 32 minutes in a romp at DePaul, and on Monday, his coach saw something better, even with his similar statistical production.
"This was a little different [than DePaul]," Calhoun said. "This was a Big East game with a lot of screens being set, and he fought his way through the screens. ... His stature in this game, his body language, was just absolutely outstanding. He played like a guy who you see kind of growing up."
UConn needs Lamb to continue that growth. Oriakhi has been great but more or less has maxed out on what he can deliver. Meanwhile, Walker's level of play over the first 10 or 12 games of the season was so good, it was basically unsustainable. So as teams focus more and more attention on stopping Walker, the Huskies need to find someone else to replace that offensive efficiency.
Fellow freshman Roscoe Smith and Shabazz Napier have had their moments, but at this stage, Smith hasn't shown the same type of promise and Napier is much more valuable as an on-ball defender. That leaves the burden on Lamb to be that guy, a message that Calhoun has been hammering home, both in practice and with the recent demotion to the bench.
"I know he's not going to settle, but that's the kind of coach you need," Lamb said of Calhoun. "During that whole time, he was just trying to let me know you gotta pick it up. I still gotta pick it up, I'm still working hard."
With Walker, a junior, the headliner, it's easy to forget how young this UConn team really is. Oriakhi is just a sophomore and the next three leading scorers -- Napier, Smith and Lamb -- have played just half a season of college ball. They have had predictable struggles, so on any given night, the Huskies really only know that Walker will be there and, for the most part, assume Oriakhi will as well. For 17 games now, Calhoun has had to manage the inconsistency of youth, both from a production and effort standpoint.
"I think they're [aware] the reason I keep getting upset with them is they have a lot more to give, they're better players than what they're playing," Calhoun said of the freshmen. "That's not really true [that they're underachieving] ... but if they believe that, that's very important."
The top of the Big East is very strong but there's no dominant team in the conference. Nor, really, is there one in the country. The Huskies have one of the best batches of quality wins around, but yet very few to this point believe. If Lamb is that missing link, it may be time to start. Their coach already is.
"15-2," Calhoun repeated. "I discount a little bit Hawaii, but I won't discount what we've done these last four games."