Two years seems like a lifetime ago. The last time the Huskies were in the Final Four it was 2009 and only guards Kemba Walker and Donnell Beverly remain from the team that eventually lost to Michigan State in the national semifinals.
It's difficult to imagine that at any point in his career -- at any level -- Walker wasn't a starter. As a freshman he still averaged 25 minutes a game, 8.9 points and 2.9 assists, but that wasn't his team. He was just a cog in the machinery. Now Walker is the engine and UConn's hopes for another national title rest on his shoulders.
"I'm definitely more prepared (for the Final Four this time)," Walker said Tuesday at Gampel Pavilion. "My freshman year, I'm not going to lie, it was tough. It was just so much for me and the team overall. By time the game came, I was exhausted."
Despite playing nearly 38 minutes a game -- including five wins in five nights during the Big East Tournament in early March -- Walker has shown no signs of slowing down. It's almost as if his style of play -- pushing the ball up the court, driving to the basket, getting fouled -- makes him stronger.
Like the rest of us, coach Jim Calhoun had no idea Walker would turn out to be this good when he recruited him out of New York. On Tuesday, Calhoun described the player he thought he was getting. "So when I recruited [Kemba], I thought I was going to get a quick New York City point, push guard, defender, all that type of thing. And he's evolved into even more than that."
Much, much more. Calhoun elaborated.
"Kemba was quick and fast. Some guys are quick and some guys are fast, he's both. He's competitive as any kid we have recruited. The thing that, I'll be very honest with you, that I didn't know was his competitive drive also allowed him to put in a summer, like where he played for the national select team, and to put in two to three hours every single day shooting the basketball. That's changed in many, many ways so much of his game. He was a terrific player last year. Obviously you're right, right now he's as good of a player in the country, mid-range jump shot, he can make threes. To me he's the most valuable player in the United States."
If you have listened to Calhoun for more than five minutes, you have no doubt heard him proclaim that Walker is the best player in the country, probably more than once. And given what he has meant to his team this season, it's a hard point to argue. (Unless, of course, you were one of the 14 voters who didn't think enough of Walker's season to name him a first-team AP All-American. The mind reels…)
And now, after some four months of doing it himself, Walker has help. The other story the last few weeks has been Jeremy Lamb finding his game, but he hasn't been alone. Roscoe Smith has been inconsistent all year, but the peaks and valleys aren't as pronounced now as they were in January and February. Shabazz Napier runs the offense effortlessly, allowing Walker to move to shooting guard and putting more pressure on the defense in the process.
Kentucky, UConn's Final Four opponent, has similar stories of discovery and redemption. "We lost five first round draft picks and two backup players who were starters the year before," Wildcats coach John Calipari said during a Tuesday conference call. "So we lost seven guys. To replace them with some inexperienced veterans and freshmen and be like this, this team has done phenomenal this year."
It's not quite the mid-major Cinderella story of VCU-Butler, but Kentucky-UConn will be the battle of youthful overachievers. At this point, though, call it whatever you want; the bottom line is winning. To quote another coach from another sport, the Steelers Mike Tomlin is fond of saying "style points don't matter." Never have truer words been spoken.