Commentary

Huskies laugh off fatigue, doubters

Originally Published: March 24, 2011
By Michael Wilbon | ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Connecticut going out of the tournament early was one of the few things I was certain of on Selection Sunday.

Of course, it wasn't a slap at Jim Calhoun; he's the sixth-greatest coach ever by total victories and has won two NCAA titles. And my lack of confidence in UConn had nothing to do with a perceived lack of talent; Kemba Walker might be the best guard in college basketball and there's not one team in America that wouldn't start freshman Jeremy Lamb, and that includes Ohio State, Kansas and half the teams in the NBA. Connecticut's issue, as I saw it, was simple. Nobody, dating to Naismith and his peach baskets, had entered NCAA tournament play having played and won five conference tournament games in five days. Thursday night's regional semifinal against San Diego State in Anaheim -- make that at San Diego State; it was by any definition a road game -- was UConn's eighth game in 17 days. If they win this tournament, the Huskies will have won 11 straight postseason games, each with elimination pressure. Hell, that's a playoff season. Bill Russell and the Celtics had to win only eight games to take the NBA championship early in his career.

[+] EnlargeKemba Walker
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireKemba Walker averaged 30 ppg in the Big East tourney and is at 29 a game in the NCAA tourney.

In other words, it's too exhausting, too exacting to pull off. The UConn kids, even though they're between 18 and 22, had to wear out at some point, and likely before the regional final. Even Walker, who had proved to be both a terrific basketball player and a force of nature during the Big East tournament, would be drained of energy at some point, if not in the first or second round, then certainly by San Diego State's hellacious defense. Sounded logical … except the entire scenario as we now know turned out to be dead wrong, 180 degrees wrong. They weren't tired coming in, and the Aztecs and their defense couldn't make Calhoun's guys tired either. Walker, after missing his first four shots, hit 12 of his final 21 and scored 36 points -- while playing the full 40 minutes. Lamb made 9 of 11 shots and barely seemed to be breathing hard afterward. Eight games in 17 days and counting.

"The one thing I don't want to beat us is fatigue," Walker said. "Do I get tired? Yeah, after the game. Not during it. I tell myself, 'I'm not tired.' … If it's 40 minutes, I might as well play 40 minutes." To recap: The Huskies beat DePaul, Georgetown, Pitt, Syracuse and Louisville (those last four were all ranked in the Top 25) in the Big East tournament, then Bucknell and Cincinnati in the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament, then put together a 74-67 win over SDSU on Thursday night. Walker, against one of the best defenses in the tournament field, was unstoppable after he got warmed up. He torched everybody the Aztecs threw at him, from 6-foot D.J. Gay to 6-8 Billy White.

The Aztecs, who have somebody to guard practically anybody in the college game, had nobody to guard Kemba Walker. On one critical possession during the second half, Walker and White stood eye to eye about 22 feet from the basket. White gave him that look, as if to say, "You're not really going to step any further back and shoot it, so I'm not about to follow you out there." Walker saw the look, stepped back and drilled a 3-pointer, as pretty as any you'll see in the college or pro game … then shook his head.

"Naaaw, he didn't think I'd do it," Walker said, retelling the sequence.

The one thing I don't want to beat us is fatigue. Do I get tired? Yeah, after the game. Not during it. I tell myself, 'I'm not tired.' … If it's 40 minutes, I might as well play 40 minutes.

-- UConn guard Kemba Walker

When it was suggested to UConn backup point guard Shabazz Napier that it wasn't a good idea to put a 6-8 kid on Walker, the freshman said, "It's not a good idea to put a smaller, quicker guy on him either, because Kemba will go right over him. I thought Billy played really good defense, to tell you the truth."

Indeed, Walker went past, around, over and through everybody in a San Diego State jersey. The kid stands 6-foot-1 and yet can challenge players who are 6-7, 6-8 for rebounds. Television doesn't do him justice; Walker is one of the players you have to see in person to fully appreciate, like Tim Duncan. Since the NCAA began keeping track of assists in 1983, just two players have averaged at least 25 points, five assists and five rebounds in a single tournament (minimum: two games). With 29.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 6.7 apg, Walker is on pace to join that short list.

"I can do so many things out there," he said, in a tone no more boastful than "Good morning." Walker is aware of the comparisons people are throwing out there as they try to get a handle on how good he is, and whether what he does at the college level translates to the NBA game. "I've heard things," he said, "from Tim Hardaway to Allen Iverson." When I suggested Isiah Thomas, Walker said, "Well, that would be a good thing." And when I asked Calhoun, he also said Thomas, the wondrous 6-foot (OK, 5-11) guard who led Indiana University to an NCAA championship in 1981 and the Pistons to back-to-back NBA championships in 1989 and '90. Even if the skill comparisons are a reach, Walker is, and Thomas was, indeed tireless. Said Napier, who provides what little "rest" Walker gets simply by coming into the game to handle the ball while Walker slides over to the 2: "Believe me, I'm sitting there on the bench saying, 'Yo, when you gonna get tired so I can get in the game and do something?'" The tournament that lacks a great team certainly seems to now have some great players. Jimmer Fredette took his final bow Thursday night in BYU's loss to Florida, but Walker and Arizona's Derrick Williams are very much still on the marquee. Williams did to the Blue Devils in Anaheim what Walker did to the Aztecs, which is to say he punished them. It's not every night kids get 32 and 13 as Williams did on Duke. The Plumlees are still trying to figure out what time Williams is scheduled to land. The sophomore sensation led Arizona on a 58 percent shooting barrage in the second half. You want to talk about getting beat badly in the major areas? Arizona killed Duke on the glass 40-27, beat Duke in the paint 30-22, hit 60 percent of its 3-pointers to Duke's 36 percent. Down six at the half, Arizona outscored Duke 55-33 in the second half. Who can say honestly they saw this coming? Not Mike Krzyzewski, who said of Williams, "He's as good as anybody we've played, or should I say better than anybody we've played."

[+] EnlargeJim Calhoun
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillFor Jim Calhoun, UConn's success has been a welcome reprieve from NCAA sanctions and personal tragedy.

Duke being tossed out of the tournament in such a fashion might be the story of the night, but UConn has been the story of March, a story Calhoun doesn't even fully comprehend just yet. "This run," Calhoun said, "has been sensational in many, many ways. I haven't been able to yet put it in perspective. I've had two tough personal situations with [the death of] my sister-in-law, who I loved like a sister and I have five of those, and my college roommate who I was like a brother with.

"A lot of things happened along the way and I couldn't have asked for a better gift than this team. And then we get this … I don't remember being through anything quite like this, and I've had a team with five pros on it, and we went to the Final Four and all of that. But this is a team that truly plays together, and I hate to say this but they're an old-fashioned team … which gives you pleasure because you aren't coaching egos. By no means do I mean to disparage any of the kids I've had, but this team with the youth, then seven freshmen, it's so great." The question remained, though, whether Calhoun had started doing something, anything, to save his players' legs in the aftermath of the Big East tournament and those five grueling days. Calhoun, his players unable to hear him in the moment, admitted, "I've lied better to them. At times they think they're going just as hard, but they're going much shorter, and we make sure there aren't a lot of clocks [within view] because you don't do this for a living without understanding that you can only push so hard." It's one of the things that makes Calhoun one of the great coaches ever, shortening practices without telling his players on one hand, and on the other demanding that they play through the fatigue, mental and physical. "I keep telling them," he said, "if you give in physically … you can't. You play basketball every single day of your lives, so what's different about what we're doing now? But inside, I worry about [whether] they can draw their emotion like they had to tonight when San Diego State came back at us." The Aztecs came back at UConn, but couldn't quite get there. When Walker's shots stopped falling in the final two minutes, Lamb picked up the slack and the Huskies fought through the fatigue, just as their coach had challenged them to do. And now here they are, playing for a spot in the Final Four, as so many Connecticut players over time have done, from Ray Allen to Richard Hamilton to Caron Butler to Ben Gordon to Rudy Gay and Hasheem Thabeet.

But none of those players, accomplished as they were, had to do what Walker and this group of Huskies are doing. None of the guys who came before had to win this many games, eight in 17 days and five in five, with this much pressure. If the Arizona Wildcats wait for the UConn players to just sort of peter out Saturday in the regional final, an impressive story is going to become simply unbelievable.

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.

Michael Wilbon | email

Pardon the Interruption co-host
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC, in addition to ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter: @RealMikeWilbon