March 10, 2011
One flick of Kemba Walker's right wrist shifted the spotlight at the Big East tournament from officiating back to basketball.
Knowing that Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon instructs his team to switch every ball screen, UConn's Jim Calhoun diagrammed a play for whomever 7-foot, 260-pound Gary McGhee was guarding to set a top-of-the-key pick for Walker. Then Walker did the rest, getting the lumbering McGhee off balance and then knocking him to the floor with a pair of jab steps before burying a pretty step-back 18-footer.
The latest signature moment from Walker was probably the best in a season in which he'd already hit two memorable game-winners. He'd previously beaten Villanova in regulation and sank a pull-up jumper in overtime to topple Texas, but neither of those shots came at Madison Square Garden in the Big East tournament against the league's top team.
It's fitting that UConn is now three-fifths of the way into its goal of winning the Big East tournament with five victories in five days because the Huskies have made a habit of doing the improbable all season.
Many thought they would miss the NCAA tournament again this season before they stunned Michigan State and Kentucky to win the Maui Invitational in November. And many disregarded them as a threat in the Big East tournament after they slipped to ninth in the regular-season standings.
For Big East regular-season champion Pittsburgh, the loss leaves some doubt as to whether a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament is still as much of a lock as it seemed to be only a few weeks ago. The Panthers (27-5) boast wins over the likes of Texas, Georgetown, UConn and Syracuse, but they finished with losses in three of their last six games and could be eclipsed by strong conference tournament runs from Notre Dame and Duke.
Even more of a concern than seeding for Pittsburgh might be how it defends the pick-and-roll late in games.
Notre Dame's Ben Hansbrough eviscerated Pittsburgh's vaunted defense late in an Irish victory earlier this season by using a high-ball screen exactly the same way as Walker did on Thursday. It's safe to assume Pittsburgh's NCAA tournament opponents will probably make the Panthers prove they've figured out how to defend that.