A year ago, Kemba Walker was in the very early stages of one of the best seasons in UConn basketball history. He was still virtually unknown outside of Storrs, considered more an undersized off-guard with an inconsistent jump shot and certainly not an NBA lottery pick. That all changed after four-and-a-half months of inspired basketball, a description which undersells what Walker accomplished during the last 11 games of his college career.
By the time it was over, Walker was nominated for (and many times won) countless national awards. Well, we can add another one to the list, and this one's pretty big: Sports Illustrated's "Sportsman of the Year."
"I always felt like there were other guys who scored," coach Jim Calhoun told SI. "Jimmer [Fredette] scored, but Kemba was the total package, he could score, get seven or eight rebounds, disrupt on defense, was sound as heck with the ball, got to the foul line at crucial times. And he led his team. It was a magical season, but when you say 965 points, you aren't even getting close to what he meant to us."
Right. It's one thing to fill up the basket. It's something else entirely to do it in the manner in which Kemba did. Which is to say: he took over games when his team needed him most. He didn't pad his stats by draining wide-open threes in the final five minutes of a blowout.
SI's Luke Winn supports Walker's SOTY candidacy, though like most people, he wasn't a Kemba convert until very late in the proceedings.
It's not entirely clear why, but in retrospect, the college basketball community (myself included) kept trying to make this past season about someone other than Kemba," Winn wrote in the latest issue of the magazine. "Last November, he averaged 30 points per game in the Maui Invitational and led the then-unranked Huskies to upsets of Michigan State and Kentucky ... but there was still skepticism around the notion of Kemba as a Naismith/Wooden Award favorite and UConn as a contender.
"By midseason, the country was fixated on Ohio State's Jared Sullinger as the Player of the Year. (In the one-and-done era, we are suckers for elite freshmen.) The Huskies stumbled during their Big East schedule, finishing 9-9, and by February, Jimmermania had gone national. No one could resist The Jimmer, and Kemba was but a memory from Maui. He wasn't even an unanimous pick for first team All-Big East. What Kemba did, after that, is now legend…"
Yes it is.
Whether it's enough to land him one more honor remains to be seen. But whatever happens, it won't take away from what Walker did during the 2010-11 season, which culminated in one of the unlikeliest runs through the Big East and NCAA Tournaments ever.