The Beat Goes On
While I thought there was a chance UConn could be significantly better than the preseason prognosticators had prognoaticated, there's no way I (or anyone) could have figured the Huskies would be 16-2 at this point of the season. Truly remarkable.
If Jim Calhoun isn't the runaway favorite for (forget just Big East), national coach of the year right now, I don't know who is. It's really not even close right now.
Calhoun has mixed and matched this group marvelously, discerning his players'strengths and weaknesses and melding it into a winning product.
"Jim does a great job of putting guys in a position to be successful," Bruce Pearl said. "They do what they can do, and don't do what they can't do."
Kemba Walker is a virtual certainty each night, and there he was once again in the UConn men's basketball's 72-61 win over Tennessee at a sold-out XL Center Saturday afternoon. Despite his lowest scoring output of the season (16 points), Walker doled out seven assists and hit his usual array of big shots, including a long 3-pointer at the first-half buzzer that gave the eighth-ranked Huskies a halftime lead.
Alex Oriakhi was at it again, too, with a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) and three steals, including a nifty pokeaway that led to his own dunk with 4 ½ minutes to play.
But it was the performances of a pair of freshmen, Jeremy Lamb and Roscoe Smith, that made the difference in this one. Lamb matched a career best with 16 points, including a couple of big buckets over the final five minutes, and added five rebounds and a pair of steals.
Smith buried four 3-pointers to add 12 points, blocked three shots and helped hold Volunteer leading scorer Scotty Hopson to a subpar (5-for-13 shooting, five turnovers) game.
"Of the 18 games we've played, that's far and away the best team effort against a quality opponent," UConn coach Jim Calhoun proclaimed afterwards. "I don't think there's any question about it."
Throw in an effective (six points, five boards) game off the bench for Charles Okwandu, a couple of 3-pointers from Jamal Coombs-McDaniel and enough clutch passing (four assists) in an otherwise poor game from Shabazz Napier and it's hard to argue Calhoun's point.
"(Walker) can get 30 any night he wants," said Lamb. "Tonight, he got us involved. Roscoe was hot, I hit a couple of shots and Shabazz was in there handling it for him. We all contributed."
Added Oriakhi: "We feed off each others' energy, so when one guy's playing well, we all feed off it and it helps the team as a whole … Roscoe was hitting 3's, Jeremy stepped up and Chuck stepped up. And that's what we need, because Kemba can't do it alone."
*** It's always fun listening to Pearl talk, so here's a little of what he had to say afterwards:
"You have to play really well to beat UConn at UConn. We did some good things, but turning the ball over – some of that was UConn, some of that was us. Second-chance points were huge. A lot of that was UConn, some of that was us."
"If you told me we could hold (Oriakhi) and Walker down, that we could win the ballgame. But those other guys, Lamb and Smith, stepped it up ... UConn's playing better when those other guys are involved like this. It makes them a harder cover. It'll open up the lane a little bit more inside."
"It's hard for Tennessee to beat UConn at UConn when Scotty Hopson doesn't play well."
(on returing to the sidelines in the middle of an eight-game suspension from SEC play)
"It's a very serious penalty. Eight league games … one league game could be the difference between seedings and making the tournament. It's significant ... Believe it or not, it didn't feel that different … It's good to get back. It was fun to be in the game for a while."
*** Ex-UConn great Clifford Robinson watched the game from behind the bench.
***Tyler Olander started for UConn but went scoreless in six minutes. Niels Giffey played just three minutes and registered nary a point nor a rebound.
***The sellout was UConn's second of the season and first at the XL Center.
***Melvin Goins led the Vols with 15 points, Hopson had 13 and Tobias Harris (a former UConn recruiting target) had 10.
***That's it. I'm off to Disney World with the family. Should be particularly exciting for my 4 1/2-year-old daughter. She's pretty excited, and so am I.