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Kemba’s the MVP, but UConn wouldn’t be here without Jeremy Lamb

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Kemba Walker is, and forever will be, this UConn team’s star.

That’s what happens when you throw a talented group of rugrats on your back and carry them to a Maui Invitational title, a Big East tournament title, and, after Saturday night’s 65-63 win over Arizona, a trip to the Final Four. That’s what happens when you have a player-of-the-year kind of season and turn a team that wasn’t supposed to contend in conference play into a national title contender. UConn is 12-0 in tournament play — 3-0 in the Maui, 5-0 in the Big East, and now 4-0 in the NCAAs — and Kemba has averaged 27.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 5.0 assists in those games.

That’s how you become a star. That’s how you become a hero. That’s how you turn yourself into a top-10 pick.

And while Kemba hasn’t exactly disappointed these past two games, it has been Jeremy Lamb — the long-armed Robin to Kemba’s Batman — that put UConn into the Final Four.

Against San Diego State, Kemba had 34 points and took over the game down the stretch. He scored all 12 points in a 12-2 run that turned a 54-53 deficit into a 65-56 lead with just over four minutes left. But San Diego State scored the next eight points, cutting UConn’s lead to just one with 1:39 left.

That’s when Lamb stepped up.

The freshman drilled a 3-pointer to stop the Aztecs’ run and, with just 30 seconds left, made a steal that led to a dunk, giving UConn a 70-64 lead and sealing the win. Lamb finished with 26 points on 9-of-11 shooting.

Against Arizona, Lamb played just as big of a role down the stretch. Kemba was struggling in the second half, as Arizona was running two or three guys at him when he would try to penetrate. The space wasn’t there, so coach Jim Calhoun used him almost as a decoy, running off of screens and setting up Lamb along the baseline. And the youngster responded, finishing with 12 of his 19 points in the second half.

It wasn’t just the points he scored, however. It was when he scored them.

UConn had opened up a 50-41 lead midway through the second half Saturday, but Arizona came back, using a 14-2 run capped by back-to-back emphatic dunks from Derrick Williams and Jesse Perry to take a 55-52 lead.

Lamb responded. He made consecutive baseline jumpers to give UConn the lead again. After Alex Oriakhi and Kemba both scored, it was Lamb who stole a Derrick Williams pass and went the distance for a dunk, capping a 10-0 run that put UConn firmly in control.

This isn’t a surprise. Lamb has always had this kind of talent. He’s a slender (that’s putting it kindly) 6-feet-5 with the wingspan of a 747. He’s a smooth slasher with a charmin-soft floater. He’s terrific at avoiding charges. He’s an excellent shooter in the mid-range, fundamentally sound coming off of screens, and has a 3-point stroke that could develop into something deadly. He’s the second-coming of Rip Hamilton.

Lamb’s issue was assertiveness. He’s passive by nature, and too often early in the season he opted to defer to Kemba or, well, anyone else on the roster. That passivity that disappeared in March, however, as Lamb has been a monster the past nine games, averaging 16.0 points in the Big East and NCAA tournaments.

He has the tools and he’s showing the ability to step up and perform when the lights are brightest. He has star written all over him.

The problem?

It’s only so long before the NBA notices.

Lamb has a ways to go before he’s able to contribute at the next level. But with his skill set, his physical tools, and his performance in March, all Lamb needs to do is convince one general manager he’s worth a first-round pick.

Whether or not he decides to leave is beside the point.

UConn is headed to the Final Four. Kemba Walker is the reason why.

But the Huskies wouldn’t still be playing if it wasn’t for Jeremy Lamb.

Arizona’s Talbott Denny injures knee, out for season

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TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) Arizona senior forward Talbott Denny will miss the season after tearing the ACL and medial meniscus in his left knee.

The school said Wednesday that the 6-foot-5 graduate transfer from Lipscomb will have surgery.

Denny, from Tucson’s Salpointe Catholic High School, missed all of last season at Lipscomb because of a shoulder injury.

Roy Williams: ‘There’s no question’ more ACC games equal no Kentucky in non-conference

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 23: Head coach Roy Williams of the North Carolina Tar Heels looks on during the third round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament against the Iowa State Cyclones at the AT&T Center on March 23, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Back in June, when the ACC officially announced that they would be expanding the league schedule to 20 games in 2019, I tried to warn you that it was going to put a dent into the non-conference schedule and the amount of quality, on-campus games that we’ll get prior to January.

Roy Williams essentially confirmed this as fact this week.

The North Carolina head coach hopped on a podcast with ESPN and more or less said that the bigger league schedule is going to lead to an end of some of UNC’s marquee home-and-home series.

“My feeling right now, and it could change by ’19, heck I could be fired by ’19, but my feeling right now is to play our conference schedule, play one exempt event where you have really good teams, and other than that play home games to help out your revenue and help out your budget,” Williams said. “We have the ACC/Big Ten and that’s not going to go away. So it’s 21 games already scheduled.”

When asked specifically if this would put an end to UNC’s series with Kentucky, Williams said, “Oh yeah, there’s no question. Why would I need to do that?”

There’s two reasons this makes sense. On the one hand, North Carolina needs to fill their home arena a certain number of times to help with the bottom line of the athletic department. They make enough off of ticket sales, merchandise sales, parking fees and food and beverage that they can afford to pay out more than $50,000 to bring a smaller opponent into their arena. More than that, playing a series of weaklings early in the year allows players to gain confidence, it allows Williams to figure out what his rotation will be and who can handle playing at this level, and it gives newcomers a chance to assimilate into his team against players that just aren’t that good.

And when a larger ACC schedule severely limits the number of non-conference games that UNC will be able to play, what’s going to get cut are the contracts that require the Tar Heels to play on the road when they don’t have to.

So buh-bye, Kentucky, it is.

John Calipari helping to raise money for Louisiana flood victims

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It’s easy to be critical of John Calipari.

You don’t have to be a Louisville fan to know all the jokes by now. He cheated at UMass. He cheated at Memphis. He’s had two Final Fours vacated. Teflon John. Yada yada yada.

I get it. Negativity comes with success, particularly for someone who is as brash about his success as Coach Cal is.

But even Cal’s harshest critics cannot begrudge the work he does — can get his players to do — for charity and how well he can harness the power of Big Blue Nation to make a tangible difference. Remember the ‘Hoops for Haiti’ telethon that raised more than $1 million to help earthquake victims back in 2010? Or the hundreds of thousands of dollars he raised for Hurricane Sandy relief? Or when his fantasy camps generated more than $1 million in charitable donations?

And should I mention the amount of times that stories of Kentucky players befriending sick kids or visiting children’s hospitals?

The cynic in me could say that all of this is for branding, helping ensure his players are image-conscious and aware of the sponsorship opportunities that come with being a likable, relatable and humble athlete. There’s probably some truth to that.

But do you think the kids that get visits from their Big Blue heroes care? Do you think it matters to the charities that get seven-figure checks to help with disaster relief?

I say all that to say this: During a press conference on Thursday morning, Cal had this to say, via SEC Country:

Calipari said former UK star Anthony Davis (currently of the New Orleans Pelicans) told Calipari, “Coach, you gotta do something” for Baton Rouge flood victims. Davis is out of the country but will try to get back for Sunday’s softball game to help. His 2012 title teammates, Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, were not previously on the celeb list for Sunday but will be there.

Calipari has decided to donate all proceeds from Sunday’s alumni/celebrity softball game will go to the Baton Rouge flood-relief fund, through Red Cross. “So what I’m asking you to do is buy these tickets.” They’re $5 apiece. The previously raised funds will still go to the other designated charities, like each year.

For those so inclined, you can donate to the flooding fund by texting “GIVE” to 859-955-8173.

Vermont women cancels game in North Carolina over HB2

DURHAM, NC - MAY 10:  A unisex sign and the "We Are Not This" slogan are outside a bathroom at Bull McCabes Irish Pub on May 10, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina.  Debate over transgender bathroom access spreads nationwide as the U.S. Department of Justice countersues North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory from enforcing the provisions of House Bill 2 that dictate what bathrooms transgender individuals can use.  (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)
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The University of Vermont is the latest in a ever-growing line of organizations canceling events in North Carolina due to the controversial HB2 law.

The Catamounts will not be traveling to play the Tar Heels on Dec. 28th as previously scheduled.

“We strive very hard to create an inclusive climate for our students and staff in which they all can feel safe, respected, and valued,” the school wrote in a statement. “It would be hard to fulfill these obligations while competing in a state with this law, which is contrary to our values as an athletic department and university.”

“This decision was made in consultation with our coaches, the women’s basketball team, and key university officials. We fully understand and sympathize with the impact that this decision may have on the North Carolina women’s basketball schedule. However, we believe this decision is consistent with our values and the conversations with our coaches and student team members. These were the most important considerations.”

Known as the “bathroom bill”, HB2 is the law that requires transgender people to use the public restroom of the sex that they were born not the sex they identify with.

Earlier this year, Albany was forced to cancel a trip to Duke due to legislation in New York regarding visits to North Carolina. The NBA has taken the 2017 All-Star game from Charlotte, and the NCAA is heavily considering pulling NCAA tournament games from the state.

Interestingly, ACC commissioner John Swofford was very non-committal on the subject when asked yesterday.

Derek Willis won’t be suspended for offseason citiation

Kentucky's Derek Willis (35) hits an uncontested three point shot during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Tennessee Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016, in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won 80-70. (AP Photo/James Crisp)
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John Calipari gave a press conference on Thursday morning and, for the first time since his arrest in June, the Kentucky head coach spoke about Derek Willis.

Willis, if you’ve forgotten, was found passed out in the street outside the open driver’s side door of his car at 4:30 a.m. You can see video of the arrest here. Willis is very lucky he wasn’t killed, and that he didn’t kill anyone else trying to drive in that condition.

Cal said that Willis will not be suspended for any games, but “Derek knows he’s under a different eye now than he was.” He did not elaborate on what kind of punishment Willis will receive beyond that, saying that “I don’t throw people under the bus.”

To be honest, I’m a little surprised that Willis won’t be forced to miss any games, but if we’re being frank, sitting out an exhibition and Kentucky’s opener sounds much more appealing than the kind of, ahem, ‘conditioning drills’ that Willis has likely spent the summer doing.