It's hard not to like Connecticut now.
Before Saturday afternoon's thrilling entry into the "best game of the year" discussion -- or, as my editor just said, the best non-Missouri game of the year -- the Huskies' stock was in clear decline. Gone were the impressive performances over top 10 teams. Gone was the frontcourt production that buoyed UConn in its run through the Maui Invitational. Instead, in three straight disconcerting games (staid losses at Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, with an ugly home win over USF sandwiched in the middle) Connecticut appeared to be a one-man show.
That one man was great, sure, but it takes more than one player to win the Big East. It takes interior presence, defense, rebounding, and enough offense to take some pressure off one of the nation's best guards. In short, Kemba Walker needed help.
Today, Kemba got it. Thanks in large part to UConn's supporting cast -- and a dose of late brilliance by Walker, too -- Connecticut will leave Austin, Tex. with a very big win. But it's not just a win: It's an immediate boost in credibility, too. Maybe we shouldn't short that Huskies stock just yet.
That's the biggest takeaway from today's Connecticut win: Maybe UConn isn't a fraud. That word sounds harsh, but when you look at how Connecticut went from unranked to No. 4 in the nation, it was a valid concern. The Huskies could have been the beneficiaries of some perfect rankings timing: They beat Michigan State and Kentucky in Maui when both teams were ranked in the top 10 -- and clearly Michigan State is not the No. 2 team in the nation; see today's loss at Penn State for further proof -- before finishing the nonconference schedule with a nice batch of rankings-preserving cupcakes.
It was entirely possible that UConn's status as one of the nation's top teams was more obligatory than deserved, that it was just a matter of time until the Big East exposed the Huskies for the young, developing bunch they were pegged as to start the season. Sure, they're probably not this good ... but it's not like I can't rank them, right? That was one way -- a totally worthwhile way, if you ask me -- to have viewed Connecticut to this point in the season. Were the Huskies merely who we thought they were?
As of today, that's clearly not the case. You can now look at Connecticut's schedule an entirely different way: It's one of the nation's most impressive nonconference runs. Perhaps the most impressive. UConn has now beaten Wichita State, Michigan State, and Kentucky on a neutral floor and Texas -- one of the Big 12's most promising teams to date -- in Austin. (And it's not like UConn's two losses -- at Pitt and at Notre Dame -- are all that bad, either.) That's an impressive two months for any team, no matter which way you slice it. And maybe, just maybe, that No. 4 ranking wasn't ill-won after all.
More scattered thoughts below:
Texas stopped Kemba Walker. It's true. Walker was 2-of-5 from beyond the arc and 6-of-22 inside it, thanks in large part to the Longhorns' tough man-to-man perimeter defense (starring Dogus Balbay, among others). Once Walker got into the lane, he was greeted by the rangy defensive play of Gary Johnson and Tristan Thompson; Walker rarely got uncontested looks from 10 feet and in. This is something of a pattern lately. Walker gets his points, but because he attracts so much opposing defensive attention, he does so inefficiently. When UConn can't offer up a second scorer -- or at least someone to preserve some of those possessions with offensive rebounds -- then the Huskies can't overcome a 10-for-30-ish Walker performance.
On Saturday, Jim Calhoun got what he needed. After a vacant performance at Notre Dame (0-for-3 with six rebounds) Alex Oriakhi submitted his most impressive performance as a college basketball player this afternoon. He grabbed 21 rebounds -- 10 of which were offensive -- and added 11 points, many of which came on putbacks around the rim. This is impressive not only for the sheer numbers involved, but because Oriakhi did it against a tough, talented Texas frontcourt, one that kept the Longhorns in the game whenever their offense stalled in the second half.
Thanks in large part to Oriakhi, but also to Walker, Roscoe Smith, and Tyler Olander, the Huskies rebounded 44.2 percent of their misses Saturday. It's going to be hard to beat Walker and company with that many second chances on the offensive end.
Of course, there was plenty of Walker brilliance mixed in. There was the stepback game-winner, of course, but my favorite shot might have been the "oh-no-the-shot-clock's-dead-I-need-to-chuck-this-OHMY..." heave from about 30 feet late in the second half. Lucky? Sure. But the good ones are always a little lucky.
And yes, you know a player is playing with confidence when he can miss as many shots as Walker missed in the second half and there's never a question over who will take the last shot, or what that lost shot will end up looking like. Why not, right?
Jordan Hamilton continues to be one of the nation's most underrated players. That sounds weird, seeing that Hamilton plays at Texas, and it's not exactly like we're mining deep mid-major talent here. But Hamilton has taken huge strides in his sophomore year, both in production and efficiency, and he's the one guy Texas can rely on to create something when its half court offense stalls. (Which is still a far too frequent occurrence right now.) Considering where Hamilton was last season -- struggling to get minutes, chucking like a madman when he was on the floor, ignoring teammates to take 25-foot threes -- his development is all the more impressive.
Speaking of poor decision-making, Roscoe Smith. Ouch. For whatever reason, with :10 seconds remaining in regulation Smith was given the impression that the buzzer was about to sound. So he did what anyone would do: chucked a full court shot with plenty of time left. Fortunately UConn went to OT and the mistake didn't matter, because Smith would probably have had quite the Calhoun tongue-lashing waiting for him in the locker room postgame.
Instead, UConn got the win, Walker got the game-winner, Oriakhi got his redemption, and just like that the Huskies made us all recalibrate expectations for the rest of their season. Again. Great game, and a great win.