We now have our first really big surprise of the 2010-11 season. I'm not talking about Tennessee losing an exhibition game to D-II Indianapolis by 15, or Kennesaw State beating Georgia Tech by 17, or even formerly slow-paced Iowa averaging a speedy 73 possessions per 40 minutes under new head coach Fran McCaffery.
No, I'm talking about the Connecticut Huskies, a team that just a few short weeks ago was unable to garner a single vote in the preseason ESPN/USA Today coaches poll. My, how times have changed. Last week UConn won a close game against Michigan State, then ranked No. 2 in the nation, and went on to defeat Kentucky by 17 to win the EA Sports Maui Invitational title. In the poll released on Monday Jim Calhoun's team is No. 9.
Should we have seen this coming? Frankly, I don't see how. Last year Connecticut was excellent as always on defense, but in terms of points scored per possession in conference play their offense was one of the weakest in the entire Big East. Losing three starters (Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson, and Gavin Edwards) didn't exactly figure to fix that problem.
In hindsight, however, maybe we should have paid a little more attention to who was returning, namely Kemba Walker. You may have heard that the junior from the Bronx is currently averaging 30 points a game. But Walker hasn't been merely prolific in his scoring, he's also been incredibly efficient. In his first five games Walker's hit 41 percent of his threes and 59 percent of his twos. He's also made it to the line virtually at will, and drained 89 percent of his free throws. And the turnover issues that bedeviled this offense last year are, thanks largely to Walker, a distant memory: Connecticut has given the ball away on just 17 percent of their possessions. It's been a magnificent performance.
Will a player who is (perhaps generously) listed at 6-1 continue to make a whopping 59 percent of his twos for the entire season? Very likely he will not. But the larger point is that Walker has already performed at that level for the balance of November. Those games happened, they're in the books, and over that time this offense has scored 1.16 points per trip. Considering the single best game the UConn offense recorded came against UK (1.25 points per possession), it's fair to say that even if Walker's two-point accuracy dips a little this will still be a much better offense than I for one expected to see in Storrs this season.
Rather than fretting about whether or not Walker can stay this hot, a better question might be how far any team can go that is so clearly reliant on a single player. And, make no mistake, Connecticut is indeed reliant on Walker. During his minutes he accounts for fully 36 percent of the shots taken by this offense. It's not so much that this figure is unheard of -- last year stars like Luke Harangody and Devan Downey posted similar shot percentages for Notre Dame and South Carolina, respectively. But you may have noticed that the Fighting Irish and Gamecocks were nowhere to be found when late March rolled around. And given that we usually we fret about a team developing a third scoring option, Walker's spectacular November points toward a natural question. Is there any recent precedent for a team riding one star and one star only for an entire season and then deep into the NCAA tournament?
As a matter of fact there is. May I direct your attention to 2008 and a certain Davidson player, one who now plies his trade for the Golden State Warriors? Maybe the true measure of what Stephen Curry was able to accomplish in 2007-08 becomes a little clearer if we note, correctly, that in effect he did for an entire season what Walker has done for five games. Taking 36 percent of his team's shots during his minutes, Curry was an undersized combo guard who got to the line constantly and was incredibly accurate from both sides of the three-point line. (Any of this ringing a bell?) When March rolled around that year, Davidson dispelled any lingering doubts about its true mettle by destroying Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 and coming within one possession of defeating eventual national champion Kansas.
Can Walker be the Stephen Curry of 2011? Put it this way, if anyone can be another Curry it's Walker. But the question itself highlights the stakes in play for Connecticut. Recent history suggests that it takes a once-in-a-decade Curry-like performance for a team this one-dimensional to make it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. And there's no question that the Huskies need Walker to keep doing what he's doing. Subtract Calhoun's star from the mix and this No. 9-ranked team has made just 30 percent of its threes and 48 percent of its twos.
Now, let's take a step back -- here we are puzzling over whether UConn can make the Sweet 16. To even raise the question two weeks ago would have been absurd. Besides, even one-dimensional Connecticut has at least one non-Walker thing going for them. Alex Oriakhi has been outstanding on the offensive glass, pulling down 16 percent of his team's (which is to say Walker's) misses while he's on the floor. Kemba Walker and offensive rebounding, in that order, have made this offense a force to be reckoned with.
Yes, it's visually strange to see UConn outscoring opponents instead of simply shutting them down. In three games in Maui -- against Wichita State, Michigan State, and Kentucky -- Calhoun's team allowed 213 points in 206 possessions. For most defenses that would be business as usual, but for Connecticut it's a step down. In fact opponents this season have made no less than 39 percent of their threes against the Huskies. If Calhoun wants to find weaknesses for his 5-0 team to work on he doesn't have to look very far.
Then again the operative term there is "5-0." Who would have thought that an NIT team that lost three starters would be in this position at the end of November? Pretty much no one, with the possible exception of Kemba Walker.
John also references Nancy Sinatra songs on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 is now available on Amazon.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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