Andrew Porter of The UConn Blog thoughtfully asked me to do a Q&A with him about the national semifinal game tomorrow. Of course, we were happy to do so and we also exchanged questions with them.
You can find my answers to Andrew's questions at this link. Andrew's answers to my questions below are in Italics.
Kemba Walker is unquestionably UConn's best player and leader, and Jeremy Lamb has really come on this year as a freshman. What do you say to charges that UConn is a 2-man team that cannot win without big performances from both Walker and Lamb?
It might be fair to say that UConn is a two-man team, but Jeremy Lamb isn't one of the two key players. Lamb has done a lot for the Huskies this year and his emergence as a second scoring option is a huge part of the reason that UConn is still playing, but that's a role that can (and has) been filled by other players like Shabazz Napier (or Niels Giffey who was UConn's second option the first time UK played UConn). Walker is clearly indispensable but UConn's other essential element is Alex Oriakhi. Oriakhi is the cornerstone of an otherwise woefully mediocre front line and when he is able to score eight or 10 points and grab 10 or 12 rebounds the Huskies are very hard to beat. If he has an off night or gets in foul trouble UConn's chances of winning go way down.
- Besides Walker and Lamb, what players do you think are likely to have a major impact on the game with the Kentucky Wildcats? Who should Kentucky be especially worried about outside the big two?
Like I said above, Oriakhi is the real key for UConn, but it's also worth keeping an eye on Napier. In theory he's a backup point guard but UConn uses him as a complementary ballhandler to allow Walker to play off the ball. Napier's prone to reckless decisions, but I've never seen a player hit more dumb shots. If he's hot, look for him to get 10 or 12 points. Plus he's a tenacious on-ball defender and if UConn brings any pressure he'll be at the heart of it.
The Huskies like to get out and run and their main weakness -- the lack of a true inside scoring threat -- gets exposed if a game turns into a half-court slog. The Huskies struggled all year long against zone defenses but have done better of late by utilizing a smaller lineup so they can try to penetrate and get to the free throw line.
It's tough to think of Calhoun as "more or less popular" because he's probably been the most popular person in the state for the last 20 years. Does he have detractors? Yes, anyone with his gruff personality would, but among fans of the program he has near-universal support. There were a couple of voices expressing displeasure after last's years down season and the NCAA investigation, but last year we were only one year removed from 2009's Final Four campaign so they weren't taken especially seriously.
Historically I think UConn fans have looked at Kentucky as one of college basketball's historically elite programs -- the type of program we were building toward. Since the two teams first played in 2006 there aren't any contentious games to look back on and color our memories either. However, the hiring of John Calipari has given UConn fans a reason to root against UK because of his frosty relationship with Jim Calhoun and ill will left over from the time he was at UMass.
I think it'll be a very close, even game that will look almost nothing like what happened in Maui. Both teams are young, talented and athletic which should make for some exciting basketball. Kentucky might have more raw talent but I've got to give the edge to UConn for two reasons. First, while Calipari is the better recruiter, I think Calhoun is a better gameday coach. The second reason is Kemba Walker. All year long our site motto has been "We have Kemba Walker and you don't," and there is a reason for that. He will be the best player on the floor Saturday, he has Final Four experience and if UConn is in a position to win I think he'll do what it takes to make sure they do. Score: UConn 77, Kentucky 74.
Thanks to Andrew for asking us to do this Q&A, and all the best to he and the Connecticut Huskies tomorrow in the national semifinals. It should be an outstanding and exciting college basketball game.