- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Kemba Walker already has cemented his reputation as one of college basketball’s elite players, and the Connecticut guard is ready for a bigger stage as the Sweet 16 begins.

The third-seeded Huskies cruised through two games at Verizon Center last weekend and will face No. 2 seed San Diego State in the West Region semifinals in Anaheim, Calif., Thursday at 7:15 p.m. - a challenge that can’t come soon enough for Walker.

“I just feel like we love the pressure,” he said. “We want to go out swinging and fighting. So we’re just going to keep fighting until somebody beats us.”

Walker had 18 points and 12 assists as the Huskies pounded Bucknell in their first tournament game, then scored 33 in Saturday’s 69-58 victory over Big East rival Cincinnati.

His talent as a shooter and playmaker makes him one of the best players in college basketball; but his leadership skills are what make his teammates better.

“He never gives up, and that’s fallen down on all of us as freshmen,” said swingman Jeremy Lamb. “There’s a lot of freshmen on this team, and we lean on him and [senior guard] Donnell Beverly to just pick us up.”

His teammates clearly know how lucky they are to be playing alongside Walker.

“We have arguably the best point guard in the country, the best player in the country,” said sophomore forward Jamal Coombs-McDaniel. “That’s definitely a big key for us, and we just feed off his energy and how he’s been playing.”

“He has a lot of energy and a lot of effort,” said freshman center Michael Bradley. “Coach [Jim Calhoun] has pointed that out in practice. If your best player’s giving energy and effort, you should be able to do that, and I think that’s carried on for the team. He has six freshmen that he takes under his wing and what he did at the Big East tournament was terrific. What he’s done the whole season was terrific.”

Calhoun calls Walker one of the nicest young guys he’s ever coached, and compared him to some of the great UConn players he’s had in the past, including former Wizard Caron Butler.

“I never try to put one [player] over another,” Calhoun said. “For two years, Caron Butler was one of the most special kids I’ve had and is still like a son to me. Ray Allen, Donyell Marshall, Rip Hamilton, Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon - those guys are all so special, and now it will be Kemba.

“Kemba’s name will now be in the mix with all these guys.”