Don’t accuse the UConn Huskies of being tired. So they played five games in five days last week to win the Big East tournament – but they don’t want to talk about that.
Instead, the third-seeded Huskies let an 81-52 walloping of 14th-seeded Bucknell answer those questions – and show that this team is serious about making a run in this tournament, too.
“We had to come out and really just make a statement and show that we’re definitely a Final Four and national championship contender and that we got all the keys to do it,” freshman forward Tyler Olander said.
If you saw the dismantling of the Bison on Thursday night at Verizon Center, you’d agree with Olander and his teammates who aren’t bashful about being a Final Four contender. But with Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun at the helm, this team isn’t looking too far ahead, either.
“We’re happy, but we’re not satisfied because we still got a lot of work to do,” sophomore center Alex Oriakhi said. “The Final Four’s gonna be a long road; it’s definitely not gonna be easy. Right now we’re just happy with the victory and ready to move on to Saturday.”
Saturday night at 7:30 brings another Big East showdown, this time against sixth-seeded Cincinnati. But still ruminating over Thursday night’s rout, the talk was about national player of the year candidate Kemba Walker, who showed off why he deserves consideration by doing a lot more than just score.
Walker finished with 18 points and perhaps even more impressively 12 assists and eight rebounds. Calhoun said he would’ve loved to get his junior guard a triple-double, but Walker was happy to do a little bit of everything while Bucknell keyed on him.
“As soon as the game started, I saw how they were playing me and I just told my guys, ‘Be ready to shoot.’ I could tell that they were extremely worried about me scoring – scoring big baskets,” Walker said. “But it was better for me; I was able to get some confidence in my teammates shooting the basketball.”
The result was 17 points from Roscoe Smith, 16 from Jeremy Lamb and the Huskies’ sixth straight win. UConn had lost four of five going into its conference tournament but hasn’t lost since starting one-and-done play.
“I think we play better when our backs are against the wall,” senior guard Donnell Beverley said. “This is the best time to do that. This is the biggest tournament, so it’s good to be like that. Hopefully we keep playing at a high level.”
Walker and the rest of the starters were playing at that high level until just a handful of minutes left in the game, though he didn’t think it was done to prove the Huskies weren’t tired. But just to make it clear, they’re not.
“Not at all,” Olander said. “We’re ready to go again.”
Unlike the Big East tournament, UConn will get a day’s respite from game action. But Saturday the Huskies will get another chance to validate some pre-tournament talk about winning the national title. Each eventual national champ in the past six years has won its opening game by 24 or more – putting UConn squarely into that company.
“We’re only gonna take it one game at a time; that’s a good stat. I didn’t know that,” Beverley admitted. “We can only take it one game at a time, but if we can win every game by 24 or more, that’d be great.”
Judging by Thursday night, they’re certainly going to try.