— The ballots are starting to arrive. Soon it will be time to vote on everything from Player of the Year, to Defensive Player of the Year, to Most Improved Player, to Coach of the Year, and all the All-American teams.
College basketball loves its awards, so there isn’t just one for Player of the Year. If you don’t win the Naismith Award, you might win the Wooden Award, or the Associated Press Player of the Year Award.
Who knows? Maybe the Poulan Weed Eater people will get in the act this year, just so they can give an award to Jacob Pullen of Kansas State. According to reports, X-rays on his hand and wrist were negative Tuesday, so give him a trophy for playing well lately — and for avoiding a serious injury during that hard fall Monday night against Texas.
Since I’m old and a veteran of the college basketball wars, I get to vote for a lot of these awards. Let me warn you. I might give you my opinion, or I might tell you whom I voted for. But don’t tell me how to vote — especially before the season is over.
Don’t tell me in November, December and early January that Kemba Walker has to be the POY. And then don’t come to me on the final Sunday in February and say Jimmer Fredette has to be the POY — and Kemba Walker might not even be a first-team All-American selection.
That’s just not right.
I’m not here to endorse Connecticut’s Walker for POY, even though I think he has had a uniquely special year. I’m not here to blame the Marquette loss on Walker’s last-minute turnover, or to breakdown the UConn offense and explain what goes wrong when everyone stands around on offense (that’s not a new trend at UConn, believe me).
My mission here is to put these words in stone: Don’t give up on Kemba Walker. Don’t count him out as a factor in the postseason. If you are in a big rush, go ahead, fill out your POY ballot, and vote for the sharp shooter from BYU. It seems everyone has been Jimmered.
But Walker’s talent and accomplishments can’t be discarded or forgotten. He is a first-team All-American if I’ve ever seen one.
And I’ve got him down for my Superhero of the Year award (another new award). He’s a Superhero because he has been asked to do so much and carry so much weight for his team. It was that way in October and it’s still that way now, as we embark on a wild and crazy March.
Walker has responded, game after game, without concern for the toll it might take on him. No player in college basketball has been asked to do more for his team this season. That’s a big statement. But it’s true.
“We kind of were demanding that Kemba do it by himself,” UConn associate coach George Blaney said after that overtime loss to Marquette last week.
“We kind of did stand around watching Kemba,” UConn forward Alex Oriakhi said. “But he was hot and he was scoring, so why go away from it?”
Back in July and August, I was editor of a preseason annual on the Huskies. At one point, the publisher’s office asked who should be on the cover. I just laughed. Walker was the only option. When I wrote Kemba’s biography, I focused on his 23-point performance against Missouri in 2009 West Regional final, an 82-75 UConn victory that sent the Huskies to the Final Four during his freshman season. “It’s difficult to play at that level every night,” I wrote, “but the Huskies may need Walker to come close this season.”
And they did.
After an ordinary opener with 18 points against Stony Brook, Walker scored 42 against Vermont. Then he went to the Maui Invitational, and wowed everyone from coast to coast and beyond with 31 against Wichita State, 30 against Michigan State and 29 against Kentucky. He returned to the mainland and hung 30 more on New Hampshire.
Suddenly it seemed everyone expected him to lead the nation in scoring and average 30 points. The only problem with that is Walker plays in the Big East, where scouting is a science, tendencies cannot be hidden, and the defensive schemes are rougher and tougher than anywhere else.
When Walker hit the game-winning shot in a 61-59 victory over Villanova at Gampel Pavilon on Jan. 17, Wildcats coach Jay Wright marveled at how UConn runs its entire offense through Walker.
“We wanted to double him but he’s so fast we couldn’t catch him,” Wright said.
Big East coaches decided if they couldn’t catch him, they would at least bump him, trip him, tackle him, and bounce him around as much as possible when he drives to the basket. Walker plays the role of the ball in a human pinball machine whenever UConn plays a Big East game.
Walker’s scoring average is down to 22.8 and his field goal percentage is down to 42.6. When Oriakhi doesn’t get a double-double or the UConn freshmen aren’t involved enough, Big East defenses can focus all their efforts on stopping Walker. It can frustrate the 6-1, 172-pound junior. Even in the midst of one of his top Big East performances (31 points, 7 rebounds, 10 assists against Georgetown), there was a moment when he was simply knocked to the floor and no foul was called. Another time he was clearly whacked on the elbow as he attempted a shot. No call.
Walker and others think officials have been warned about the amount of contact he initiates and the perception that he flops to try to get to the free-throw line. So from time to time he pleads his case during games. He doesn’t get very far.
If his path to the basket is blocked, Walker simply adjusts. He is averaging 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.9 steals. In addition, Walker is the 11th player in school history to score more than 600 points in a season. Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor (2003-04) were the last to do it.
Perhaps those numbers haven’t been enough to keep him in the POY race. Perhaps UConn’s 21-7 record (9-7 Big East) isn’t good enough, because the top player in the nation historically comes from one of the elite teams. That probably doesn’t mean the No. 16 team in the nation for most voters.
But remember that just one year ago, UConn was a team with no chemistry, heading to the NIT and wallowing in a lack of leadership. Walker and senior Donnell Beverly chanced that. They nurtured a family atmosphere with team activities that included meals cooked by Walker and made sure this version of the Huskies didn’t have the same chemistry issues.
Now the UConn players genuinely like each, and there’s no doubt that bond is rooted in Kemba Walker’s radiant smile. Few enjoy playing basketball as much as he does, which affects his teammates. That's one of the reasons why the Huskies are headed back to the NCAA tournament. That was no certainty when Jim Calhoun took his team to Maui in November.
That has to be as important — if not more important — than his field-goal percentage during the Big East season.
The guy has had a shooting slump. He’ll be the first to admit that. But as I said, don’t give up on Kemba Walker. Once he is free of the defensive intensity of the Big East, don’t be surprised if NCAA Kemba more closely resembles Maui Kemba. He might drop 30 or 40 on some unlucky first-round opponent without the tools to slow him down.
There is one more element that makes Walker an All-American in my book. While accomplishing so much on the court, he has ramped up his academic schedule in order to get his degree after three years at UConn. At some point in March or April he will likely announce he is leaving school early and heading to the NBA. But in May he will take part in graduation ceremonies, then finish his degree work in sociology in August.
Kemba has put the “college” back in college basketball. That doesn’t make him Player of the Year. But to drop him off the first-team All-America ballot would be an insult to the game.
Kemba Walker: Superhero of the Year. It doesn’t get much better than that.