The Times West Virginian

March 2, 2011

UConn’s Walker major challenge for Mountaineers

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — There are those who are saying that Connecticut’s Kemba Walker, who brings his many talents with Connecticut to the Coliseum for an important 7 p.m. game today against West Virginia University, is the front-runner for Big East Player of the Year.

Mountaineer coach Bob Huggins isn’t sure they are going far enough.

“I think he could very well be the National Player of the Year,” Huggins said. “Look what he’s done. He and (Alex) Oriakhi are the two mainstays they have back. Other than that they are playing a bunch of freshmen. The freshmen are having really good years, but I think he has aided them in having those good years.”

The result is that in a troubled season that has included a long wait for an NCAA decision on infractions against the program that resulted in probation and a suspension next year for coach Jim Calhoun, UConn has put together a 21-7 record and an identical 9-7 Big East record to the Mountaineers.

With that comes a No. 16 national ranking in both polls.

And what has Walker done? Only averaged 22.8 points a game, ranking second in the Big East to Providence’s mad bomber Marshon Brooks.

To put that in perspective, that 22.8 average is higher than the combined average (22.2) put together by the Mountaineers’ Kevin Jones and John Flowers.

“He’s got speed. He’s got great understanding. He does a great job of reading defenses,” Huggins said.

So, the problem that presents itself for the Mountaineers in this game that could help them greatly in their seeding in the Big East and NCAA Tournaments is how do you guard Kemba Walker?

Obviously, no one really has found the right formula.

“I’m not sure how you guard him,” Huggins said. “We’re going to try to do some things. He’s really good. You can’t let him go crazy, but you can’t let him get his and let everyone else get theirs too.”

Rest assured that Huggins will come up with something. Very seldom do you see an opponent’s star go off against West Virginia.

Take the last three games for example. Ben Hansbrough of Notre Dame came into Coliseum with the reputation for hitting 3-point shots. He hit 3 in Notre Dame’s loss. You might have noticed that on Monday against Villanova he made 7 of 10.

Then the Mountaineers faced Pitt and its scoring leader Ashton Gibbs, who averages 16.3 points a game. He scored nine.

Next came Rutgers’ Jonathan Mitchell, averaging 14.2 points a game and shooting 45 percent. He scored eight on 2 of 11 shooting.

There’s a chance the Mountaineers might put Joe Mazzulla on Walker, even John Flowers, or go to a zone, which some teams have used effectively against Connecticut.

“We’ll force him into tough shots, not let him get step-in 3s, not let him get in rhythm with one-bounce shots,” Mazzulla said. “We have to force him, just like we did with Hansbrough, have a hand in his face, always be in contact with him.”

That may not be as easy to do with Walker as it was with Hansbrough.

“He’s smaller and faster, so it’s harder to keep contact with him. We’ll have to rely on help defense, stay in his lanes and not allow him a lane to penetrate,” Mazzulla said.

It may not be as easy for another reason, that being that he may be the best offensive player in the league. Mazzulla certain respects his skills.

“He can hit from outside; he has a great in-between game; he does a great job of finishing and creating contact,” Mazzulla said. “You have to take one or two of them away. You have to not let him hit outside shots and not get to the free-throw line.

“He is the best player, so you have to really make him work hard and grind him down.”

The situation West Virginia faces is that the Mountaineers are tied with UConn, Cincinnati and Marquette for seventh in the Big East with a 9-7 record while Villanova is right behind at 9-8.

Cincinnati and Marquette also face each other on Wednesday, so by day’s end one of them will be 10-7, the other 9-8, just as it will be with WVU and UConn as the teams scramble to finish seventh or eighth and get an opening-day bye in the Big East Tournament.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.