The knock on UConn this season is that they are a one-man team.
I believe the nickname of choice has been “The UConn Fightings Kembas”.
Its a pretty accurate assessment of the Huskies. Kemba Walker was the best player in the country — by far — for the first month and a half of the season, and when you combine that with the amount of youth and inexperience surrounding him on a team ranked in the top ten, its no surprise so much is being asked of him.
There isn’t anyone else on the team that can carry the load.
At the very least you can rest assured that Notre Dame felt that way, because their entire defense was geared around slowing down Walker in the Irish’s 73-70 win in South Bend on Tuesday night. While the Irish used a team approach to end Walker’s of 11 straight 20 points game (he finished with 19 points on 8-23 shooting), Ben Hansbrough — and to a much lesser extent, Eric Atkins — was the guy that drew the night’s toughest assignment.
When Walker had the ball in his hands, Hansbrough climbed all over him. He didn’t bite on pump fakes, he stayed home on Kemba’s step-back jumpers, and he was able to do it because he knew that his entire team was sloughing off their man in help-side. When Walker didn’t have the ball, Hansbrough played the exact same way, not giving the UConn guard an inch, making every cut difficult and trailing every time he went over a screen.
Notre Dame bumped every cut, hedged every pick regardless of whether it was on or off the ball, and knocked Walker down every time he got all the way to the rim. They did so while essentially ignoring the other four players on the floor, and it worked. Walker did the majority of his damage in transition — where he is virtually impossible to stop — and finished the game just 8-23 from the floor and 0-5 from three.
Hansbrough was the star on both ends for the Irish. Not only was he the guy guarding Walker for the majority of the game, but he also played 40 minutes and tallied 21 points and four assists while turning the ball over just twice.
Notre Dame is now 2-1 in the league with wins over Georgetown and UConn surrounding a loss at Syracuse. Notre Dame is always tough to beat at the Joyce Center and we all know how difficult winning on the road is in conference play, but the early returns on the Irish — including their title at the Old Spice Classic — all point to a top 15 ranking being legitimate.
More impressive still was that Notre Dame won tonight despite missing starting big man Carleton Scott with a slight hamstring tear, which left Mike Brey with essentially a six man rotation.
Scott is an important piece for Brey. He’s a 6’9″ forward that can knock down threes. His versatility in the front court is a large part of what makes Notre Dame’s offense effective. Notre Dame, in essence, is the anti-UConn. They are always going to have four or five experienced players on the floor that know how to play together. They aren’t necessarily the best one-on-one players, but they understand the correct pass to make and the correct times to attack the basket.
Its that ability to execute their team’s game plan that makes the Irish dangerous.
Believe it or not, this team may actually be better off without Harangody.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.