"We just showed the world we can play."
- , November 23, 2010
When he waved goodbye to seniors Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson and Gavin Edwards last spring, enigmatic point guard Kemba Walker assumed the most important role of his basketball career: Leader. And as a vital component on Connecticut's underachieving 2009-10 squad, Walker's scoring ability was already well-documented to college hoopsters around the country.
But with his junior season came new responsibilities. The 2010-11 Huskies would effectively become his team. Loading up the box score with points wouldn't be enough. Not when it mattered most. Not with a roster overflowing with inexperience and youngsters who needed to be shown the ropes. Connecticut would only go as far as Walker could take them. This, it seemed, was a harsh reality for a group of guys that had yet to play a single game. And honestly, that's really how it all started.
The pundits were not impressed. The Big East picked the Huskies to finish in 10th place out of 16 schools in its preseason tally. Not exactly a snub considering the depth of the conference, but still quite indicative of the level of success most prognosticators felt this team was capable of at the time. It's hardly a surprise, then, that the AP's inaugural top 25 poll didn't feel the need to include Jim Calhoun's squad at all. Bulletin board material, to be sure. But in the end, none of this mattered one bit.
"It's just good to see that those guys' confidence is getting higher, and that's what we need. When those tough games come around, if I'm not on, I think some of those guys, especially the young guys, will come along."
- Kemba Walker, December 8, 2010
Before people could figure out what hit them, the Huskies were the hottest ticket in town. Pollsters did a 180 to account for the coolest kid on the block. Early season wins over supposed title contenders Michigan State and Kentucky not only tested UConn's mettle in a neutral site tournament format, they also helped morph Walker into a household name.
Kemba wasted little time leading by example, as the scoring load was firmly placed on both of his shoulders from the jump. Throughout non-conference play, Walker's teammates looked to him. They relied on him. They fed him the ball and thrived off his emotion at every turn. The national player of the year race, at that point, was essentially Kemba Walker vs. everybody else. And it wasn't even close. Kemba was running away with it.
"Winning solves a ton of problems, but coaching a team that listens to you and is getting better, and you can see it ...there is a lot of great pleasure in that, too."
- Jim Calhoun, January 22, 2011
Always an adept passer from day one, Walker's lights-out shooting stroke hit a cold spell upon reaching conference play. Eventually, the missed shots took a toll on both him and his team. Kemba's previously elite-level percentages dipped significantly, his POY campaign slowed down, and his Huskies smashed into a proverbial wall. Questions about Connecticut's hot start to the year began to surface. Was this team really that good? Something had to change.
And then it did. As Kemba's shot began to connect with more rim than he was accustomed to, he started to seek out his teammates. His trust in a pair of true freshmen, Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb, grew exponentially as the pair flirted with part-time brilliance. Make no mistake, it was still Walker's show to run, but for the first time all year his teammates were on the same stage. Leadership personified.
"I've had some very good teams over the last few years. This is one of my favorite teams of all time."
- Jim Calhoun, February 27, 2011
The growing pains of breaking in a more diverse attack made the Huskies appear vulnerable heading into the Big East tournament. And after losing its season finale to Notre Dame, Connecticut whiffed on a chance for a free pass through the opening round. The task of winning five games in five days was so insurmountable that not a single analyst gave it a second thought. Most figured the Huskies landed in the exact same place they were projected to before the season, and would bow out early just like in years past. Whoops.
A tournament-tested team is a menace in its own right, but the Huskies managed to become something much, much bigger after that awe-inspiring conference tournament run. The "if we can do this, then why can't we do this?" mentality became the team's new mantra. And why not? Deathly afraid of a season-ending loss, Walker and his newly-developed cast of characters entered the greatest postseason tournament in sports with all the confidence in the world. And wouldn't you know it, it freakin' paid off.
Say hello to your 2011 national champs...