Can it really have been only a month ago that I wrote this about the Connecticut Huskies?
Jim Calhoun's team has won just three of their last eight games....
UConn's offense has collapsed, mustering just 0.94 points per possession during this 3-5 run.
It reads like an artifact from a distant and forgotten era. That was before Connecticut won five games in five days to take home the Big East tournament title. Now, after Thursday night's 74-67 win over San Diego State, the Huskies find themselves just 40 minutes away from their second Final Four in three years. Heading into their Elite Eight match-up against Arizona, February's struggles are indeed both distant and, rightly, forgotten.
Over the past eight games UConn has quite simply been better than any team they've come across. Since tip-off of their first game in the Big East tournament, Connecticut has played 531 possessions of March basketball, and in that time they've scored 621 points. That works out to 1.17 points per possession. During the Big East regular season, on the other hand, Calhoun's team scored just 1.03 points per trip. Whatever he said in his pre-game speech before that first game at Madison Square Garden, Calhoun should definitely keep saying it.
Throughout this incredible run, UConn star Kemba Walker has received the lion's share of the credit. That is entirely appropriate. To say the Huskies rely on Walker for their offense would be putting it mildly. Like other great players, Walker has the ability to move opposing defenses even when he doesn't have the ball. But, mostly, he has the ball. During this eight-game stretch the junior from the Bronx has personally accounted for 34 percent of his team's shots while he's on the floor. (And he's been on the floor for 497 of those 531 postseason possessions mentioned above.)
Then again that's been more or less true the entire season: this offense has gone through Walker since the Huskies won the Maui Classic, and even before that. The difference now is that the offense is going through a player who's far more efficient than he was in February.
First, let's throw some good news Arizona's way. Walker's outside shooting has actually fallen off in the postseason. On the year UConn's star is making a respectable 34 percent of his threes, but during his team's eight-game winning streak he's connected on just 29 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. Now the bad news, if you're the Wildcats: the key words in the preceding sentence are "eight-game winning streak." Sure, Walker's accuracy has fallen off from the perimeter, but he's more than offset that fact with an incredible performance in the paint.
For a player listed, perhaps generously, at 6-1 to make 52 percent of his twos while functioning as his team's featured scorer would be impressive anytime. To do it in March against the likes of Pitt, Syracuse, Louisville, Cincinnati, and San Diego State, as Walker has done, is heroic. Walker's even managed to improve what didn't really need improvement. An 82 percent shooter from the line, Walker is hitting 89 percent of his freebies in the postseason. In just about every way that a star can carry a team, Kemba Walker has put the Huskies on his back and led them to the brink of the Final Four.
Not that Walker hasn't had help, mind you. I've already pointed out the vital contributions that Alex Oriakhi has made in March, particularly on the offensive glass. And Walker would likely be the first to direct our attention to Jeremy Lamb and the stellar shooting that the freshman has displayed during this win streak. Lamb's been on the floor for 414 postseason possessions, during which time he's been even more effective in his scoring than Walker.
That's no knock on Calhoun's star, of course -- he has opposing defenses keying on him. It's part of Walker's job description to make supporting players like Lamb more efficient. Mission accomplished: in the postseason Lamb has made 60 percent of his twos and 57 percent of his threes. Walker plus Lamb, with Oriakhi cleaning up the misses. It's almost unfair.
Don't send that sympathy card to Arizona just yet, though. You might have heard they have a pretty fair player too. The brackets say this Elite Eight game is missing the West's top two seeds, but it's hard to imagine a collision of two more entertaining or effective stars than the one that's about to happen between Walker and the Wildcats' Derrick Williams. Both players are peaking in late March. Williams scored 32 points against Duke thanks in large part to 5-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc. Even more amazing, the Cats lit up the Blue Devils for 55 points in the second half, and Williams accounted for just seven of those points. This promises to be a great game.
For much of the year Arizona has struggled to defend its basket in close, a weakness that was particularly apparent in their narrow wins over Memphis and Texas in their first two tournament games. It doesn't take too much imagination to envision Walker penetrating into the teeth of this defense and wreaking his usual havoc: drawing fouls, dishing assists, and running up the score. But with all due respect to San Diego State and 15 other Big East teams, the Huskies haven't seen anything quite like Derrick Williams this year. Since Williams is a legitimate three-point threat, his presence on the perimeter often lays opposing defenses bare in the paint. The only thing that's worse, in fact, is if Williams gets the ball in the post. Either way you lose. (Just ask Duke.)
For Connecticut and Kemba Walker to extend their incredible run all the way to Houston, they'll have to continue attacking the paint while defending perhaps the most effective scorer they've faced all year. It's a tall order, but a month ago there was no reason to think they'd even get to try. I for one wouldn't put it past them.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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