Connecticut's Kemba Walker speaks during a news conference as teammate Roscoe Smith looks on before a practice session for the men's NCAA Final Four college basketball championship game. (Photo: AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Kemba Walker has carried the University of Connecticut on its surprising journey to tonight’s national championship game in Houston. Not only has the 6-foot-1 guard been the best player on the hottest team in the biggest games, but by averaging 25.5 points during UConn’s 10-game winning streak, he’s also having one of the greatest playoff runs in college basketball history.
As great as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) for UCLA in the 1960s.
As great as Earvin “Magic” Johnson for Michigan State in 1979.
As great as Danny Manning for Kansas in 1988.
As great as Carmelo Anthony for Syracuse in 2003.
Each of those players led his team to the national championship, with Abdul-Jabbar doing it three times. Walker should add his name to that list in tonight’s game against Butler.
Walker has ignored critics who thought UConn was too young to contend for a championship. The Huskies will start freshmen Jeremy Lamb, Roscoe Smith and Tyler Olander, and bring another freshman, Shabazz Napier, off the bench when the game is on the line. Walker has made this risky strategy work by carrying the team on his back.
Connecticut (31–9) looks to Walker for on-court leadership and big plays—the killer crossover dribble and shot at the buzzer that beat Pittsburgh on March 10, the penetration and pass that led to a teammate’s open layup, the hustling block from behind that helped his team clinch Saturday’s Final Four win over Kentucky—and time after time Walker has delivered.
It’s also worth noting that Walker, from Bronx, N.Y., is on course to graduate in May. That proves he’s as quick in the classroom as he is on the court.
Led by Walker, UConn won an unprecedented five games in five days to take the Big East Conference title in March. He’s averaging 23.7 points and 4.6 assists in 2010–2011, which means he has accounted for 45 percent of his team’s points. Those statistics are worthy of national player-of-the-year honors, but last week Walker watched media darling Jimmer Fredette of Brigham Young get the award.
No problem. A bigger prize—the national championship—is at stake. Connecticut has not lost to a team outside the Big East all season, and Walker will make sure it doesn’t happen tonight.
Cecil Harris is the author of three books, including Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters.