Barring the unforeseen, there's every reason to believe that Kemba Walker will play the final regular-season game of his collegiate career Saturday afternoon against Notre Dame. The junior superstar hasn't officially announced his intentions to enter the NBA draft, but he will be recognized on Senior Day along with Charles Okwandu and Donnell Beverly, an honor not usually extended to underclassmen.
For now, though, Walker is trying to help UConn to a first-round conference tournament bye and beyond that a deep run through the NCAAs.
A relatively young group, the Huskies have relied heavily on Walker this season, although freshmen Jeremy Lamb, Roscoe Smith and Shabazz Napier have all picked up their game in recent weeks.
One consequence of Walker carrying this team for long stretches is that 29 games later, the minutes are piling up. In fact, Walker leads the Big East in minutes played (38.3 per game). TheDay.com's Gavin Keefe writes that, "Walker is in the midst of a grueling stretch. In the last 13 games, including one overtime and one double-overtime game, he's averaging 39.7 minutes. He played all 40 minutes of Wednesday's 65-56 loss at West Virginia."
Amazingly, the extended playing time hasn't much impacted Walker's performance. For the season, he's averaging 37.3 minutes and 22.8 points per game. His numbers the first 10 games: 33.9 and 26.5. The last 10 games his minutes increased (39.8) and productivity decreased (19.6), but much of that can be attributed to the tougher conference schedule and defenses focusing more of their efforts on stopping Walker. Plus, in the last five games, Walker has averaged 40 minutes and managed 22.4 points.
Which brings us to this: Is he the national player of the year? After UConn fell to Marquette last week, AnnArbor.com's College Basketball Player of the Year poll (voted on by 50 journalists, many who also serve as voting members on other college basketball player of the year award panels) had Walker fourth behind BYU's Jimmer Fredette, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, and Duke's Nolan Smith. More than that, Walker didn't receive a single first-place vote.
NBCSports.com's Ken Davis disagrees. "Don’t give up on Kemba Walker. Don’t count him out as a factor in the postseason. If you are in a big rush, go ahead, fill out your POY ballot, and vote for the sharp shooter from BYU. It seems everyone has been Jimmered. But Walker’s talent and accomplishments can’t be discarded or forgotten. He is a first-team All-American if I’ve ever seen one."
Seems like a fair point. Especially when you consider that unlike Sullinger, Smith, and until recently Fredette, Walker routinely put UConn on his shoulders.
But honors and awards are for the postseason. Walker is more concerned with the here and now. And for the Huskies, that means beating the Fighting Irish Saturday.