Connecticut basketball has come full circle this season. They vanquished a young Kentucky club by 20 in the Malibu Classic, were embarrassingly susceptible to the most modest zone defense midway through conference play, and then after an impressive conference and NCAA Tournament run, find themselves in the 2011 Final Four.
Coach Calhoun has done yeoman’s work to counteract the “book on UConn” which was zone and attack the front court. He won five straight games in the Big East tournament by pushing pace to out run zone defenses, and in the NCAA tournament he’s instilled a sense of confidence in the two most important freshmen Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb.
In a Final Four that has the theme of virtuoso coaching performances, Coach Calhoun is right at home. No one expected the Huskies to get this far after Stanley Robinson and Jerome Dyson jumped to the NBA.
Players to Watch
It all starts with Kemba Walker and opposing Big East coaches had that figured out during the Huskies late season swoon. Teams like St. John’s, Seton Hall, and Syracuse zoned to their heart’s content mainly because the young Huskies stood around to watch Kemba try to work against all types of zones—matchup, to 2-3, to active half court traps. The result was losses in 3 out of UConn’s last four regular season games.
Fast forward to the Big East tournament and the NCAA tournament where Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb have taken ownership in UConn’s offense to augment what Walker does best. Napier is a good enough guard to get Walker off the ball into catch and shoot mode, and Lamb is one of the few true traditionally sized small forwards in the game today. Lamb is big enough to shoot over third guards and nimble enough to take posts off the dribble. Outside of those three, the Huskies are susceptible to teams with depth, especially along the front court.
Jim Calhoun is sitting in his office as we speak with a crooked smile on his face given the fact that Kentucky lacks a true blow-by point guard to really take it to Kemba Walker on the defensive end. Brandon Knight is a fine perimeter shooter, but he’s not going to be able to consistently take Walker off of the dribble and expose the UConn star to foul trouble. Terrence Jones is a different story in that vein because neither Alex Oriakhi or Charles Okwandu can float on the perimeter with the talented Kentucky forward. Don’t’ be surprised if Roscoe Smith gets significant minutes on Jones to chase him off the perimeter and into the post in an effort to consolidate help defense responsibilities inside. If UConn can compete on the boards in a Walker, Lamb, Napier, Smith, Oriakhi lineup the Wildcats will be in big trouble because Walker is the trump card at lead guard if manufactured offense is the gold standard.
If UConn goes to this lineup, then Jones has to do work on the low block and Harrellson has to make the Huskies pay on the glass. If not, the Wildcats will get smothered.
Calhoun has to treat this ballgame like an algebra equation and boil it down to Kemba Walker. He does that by finding an answer for Jones on the perimeter and limiting Kentucky as a dribble drive team much like Princeton did in the opening round.
The more bogged down the game becomes, the more advantage goes to the team with a superstar and that advantage sides with UConn and Kemba Walker. I like Calhoun and Walker coming out of the Big East to pull that off. Superstars have their privileges.