All about the Big East: Walker arrives

Connecticut guard Kemba Walker played the first two years of his college basketball career with a constant smirk. He demanded the ball, taunted his opponents and talked trash whether he was making shots or missing them.

Kemba Walker scored 30 points to lead the Huskies past Michigan State on Tuesday.
(Eugene Tanner / AP)

Finally, as a junior, Walker is backing it up.

The 2010-11 season is only two weeks old, yet after only four games, Walker has become a national story. Walker scored 42 points against Vermont last week and had 31 in Monday’s win against Wichita State.

But Walker’s biggest accomplishment came Tuesday, when the 6-foot-1 Bronx native poured in 30 points to lead the unranked Huskies to a 70-67 victory over No. 2 Michigan State in the semifinals of the Maui Invitational.

Asked what made the biggest difference in the game, UConn coach Jim Calhoun told reporters: “We have Kemba Walker and Tom [Izzo] didn’t. I’ve had some pretty good players in my career. Kemba is developing into one of the great players and competitors. For all of us who love the game, it’s a joy to watch.”

It’s not as if Walker has come out of nowhere. He averaged 8.9 points for Connecticut’s Final Four team in 2008-09 and scored at a 14.6 clip last season. But Walker shot just 40 percent from the field as a sophomore as Connecticut finished 18-16 and missed the NCAA tournament.

The Huskies were expected to struggle again this season after losing Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson and Gavin Edwards. In a preseason poll of Big East coaches, Connecticut was picked to finished 10th in the league.

Walker obviously had other thoughts.

He’s averaging 30.3 points for the 4-0 Huskies and is shooting 50.9 percent from the field. In Connecticut’s last three halves of basketball, Walker has scored a combined 59 points. On Tuesday his fallaway jumper with 52 seconds remaining put Michigan State away.

Walker has taken more than twice as many field goal attempts this season (57) as the next highest player on his team (28).

“We ask him to do nearly the impossible and he’s producing,” Calhoun told reporters Tuesday. “[From] Ray Allen to Rip Hamilton to all of the great UConn players … no one has made more progress than Kemba. No one has equaled the work he’s done [on his game].”

What will Walker do for an encore? We won’t have to wait long to find out. Connecticut plays Kentucky for the Maui Invitational championship tonight. Walker wasn’t looking that far ahead Tuesday.

“We just showed the world we can play,” he said.

LEAGUE RANKINGS

1. Pittsburgh (6-0) – The Panthers beat two good teams (Maryland and Texas) in New York last week. (1)

2. Villanova (4-0) – Corey Fisher is averaging a team-high 16.5 points. (3)

3. Connecticut (4-0) – Somehow, with less talent, the Huskies are better than last year. (11)

4. Georgetown (5-0) – Jason Clark is one of the Big East’s more underrated players. (5)

5. West Virginia (3-1) – A good team will only get better. (4)

6. Syracuse (4-0) – The Orange play Michigan on Friday in New Jersey. (2)

7. Marquette (4-2) – Forward Jae Crowder has been one of the league’s most pleasant surprises. (6)

8. Notre Dame (4-0) – Ben Hansbrough is averaging 18 points and shooting 59.3 percent from 3-point range. (9)

9. Louisville (3-0) – The Cardinals are averaging 85.3 points per game. (8)

10. St. John’s (1-1) – The Red Storm will have had eight days rest when it takes the court against Ball State on Thursday. (10)

11. Seton Hall (2-3) – Herb Pope, who had just two points in Monday’s loss to Clemson, needs to step up. (7)

12. Cincinnati (3-0) – Yancy Gates leads the Bearcats in points (13.0) and rebounds (9.3). (12)

13. Rutgers (3-1) – Raise your hand if you thought the Scarlet Knights would beat Miami by 16. (14)

14. South Florida (3-2)Kansas State transfer Ron Anderson is coming up big for the Bulls. (13)

15. DePaul (1-1) – Oliver Purnell’s squad plays Oklahoma State in the 76 Classic in Anaheim on Thursday. (15)

16. Providence (4-1) – The Friars lost by 11 points to LaSalle on Tuesday. Maybe Keno Davis should’ve stayed at Drake. (16)

Bilal Dixon and Providence have made some progress in the paint.
(Jim Prisching / AP)

WHO’S HOT

Providence on the glass – Even at 4-1, the Friars aren’t even close to being an upper-echelon Big East team. Heck, some think they may have the worst program in the league. But it’s hard to ignore Providence’s success in the paint thus far. The Friars’ 48.8 rebounds per game rank second in the nation. Two players – Bilal Dixon (12.8) and Marshon Brooks (10.3) – are averaging double-digits rebounds.

Notre Dame – Each of the Fighting Irish’s four wins have come by 21 points or more, and Mike Brey’s squad ranks fifth in the nation in scoring with 92.3 points per game. That number will go down once Notre Dame begins playing legitimate opponents such as Georgia (Nov. 25) and Kentucky (Dec. 8). Still, give the Irish credit for being efficient early.

Casey Mitchell, West Virginia – Not many players in the country have as quick of a release as Mitchell, who is averaging 20.5 points and is shooting 43.8 percent from 3-point range. Mitchell’s trey with 3.8 seconds remaining lifted the Mountaineers to a 74-71 win over Vanderbilt last week. He made six shots from beyond the arc in that game and swished four more in a loss to Minnesota the following day.

Mike Rice – Scarlet Knights fans couldn’t be any happier with their new coach, who has led Rutgers to three straight wins following an overtime setback against Princeton to open the season. Considering the team’s lack of depth and size, any victory this season is impressive.

WHO’S NOT?

Leadership at Syracuse – The Orange are 4-0, but their last two wins (by 11 over Detroit and by three over William and Mary) haven’t been all that convincing. Coach Jim Boeheim said he’s still waiting for someone to step up and take control of the team, whether it’s a senior such as Scoop Jardine or first-year starter like Kris Joseph. The issue shouldn’t be all that surprising, considering Syracuse three key players (Andy Rautins, Wes Johnson and Arinze Onuaku) from last year’s Big East championship team.

Seton Hall – The Pirates took a massive blow when leading scorer Jeremy Hazell broke his wrist in the Virgin Islands last weekend. Not many players in the league mean as much to their team as Hazell, who was averaging 24 points and had made 11 of 17 3-pointers in Seton Hall’s first three games. The Pirates are 0-2 without Hazell, who will be out three or four more weeks.

Vander Blue, Marquette – The Golden Eagles were expecting bigger things from the top-ranked player in their 2010 recruiting class. But in two games against quality competition (Duke and Gonzaga), Blue combined for just nine points on three-of-13 shooting.

THREE TO WATCH

UCLA vs. Villanova at MSG, Wednesday – This is one of the few tough non-conference games on Villanova’s schedule. Although not a great team, UCLA is much-improved from last year. Center Josh Smith will be a load down for Villanova’s Antonio Pena and Mouphtaou Yarou. The winner will advance to the championship game of the Preseason NIT.

Georgia vs. Notre Dame, Thursday – The first-round matchup in the Old Spice Classic could be a huge success for Notre Dame, which will face a Georgia team that has yet to have that services of superstar forward Trey Thompkins. Even if Thompkins plays, he won’t be 100 percent. The Fighting Irish must take advantage.

Georgetown vs. Missouri, Tuesday – The Hoyas have good guards, but they’re not used to facing the frenetic style employed by Mike Anderson’s Missouri Tigers. Hopefully Chris Wright, Austin Freeman and Jason Clark don’t eat too much Kansas City barbeque before this one.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Nov 24, 2010