Its no secret that UConn is going to go as far as Kemba Walker takes them this season.
Its what was predicted by every writer in the preseason. Its what became abundantly clear as Kemba carried the Huskies to a top ten ranking in December and early January. But it may also be what dooms the Huskies in March.
Kemba Walker scored 27 points against Marquette last Thursday when the Golden Eagles visited the XL Center, but UConn ended up losing that game. At Cincinnati on Sunday, Kemba finished with just 16 points, but UConn ended up winning that game on the road largely because he was able to get his teammates involved throughout the game.
The UConn supporting cast has really grown as the season as gone along. Alex Oriakhi is not as consistent as would be ideal, but he’s developed into one of the better big men in the Big East. Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier have both become playmakers capable of creating shots. Jamal Coombs-McDaniel has come back to earth a bit from the three game stretch where he averaged 20.3 ppg, but he’s proven — both to opponents and, more importantly, to himself — that he is a scoring threat that’s must be identified.
No longer is this a one man show. The Huskies now have options. Kemba is the star, he’s the focal point of what they want to do offensively and what their opponents are going to try to do defensively.
But its when he trusts his teammates and allows them to make plays is when UConn is at their best.
I went back and watched a bunch of tape of the Huskies past few games, specifically the end of the Marquette loss and the Georgetown and Cincinnati wins, to try and deduce precisely what the Huskies issues were.
In the last five minutes of regulation and overtime against Marquette, there was only one possession (not including the final 30 seconds when UConn was scrambling to score down five) in which the Huskies didn’t immediately run a high ball-screen or an isolation for Kemba. Even on the possession where the Huskies ran a set, the ball ended up in Kemba’s hands at the end of the shot clock.
The issue wasn’t necessarily that Kemba didn’t pass the ball, which is what the majority feeling was after the game on Thursday. Kemba didn’t have anywhere to pass to. The other four players on the court simply didn’t move. Each possession started in a 1-4 set, meaning Kemba had the ball up top while the two wings were buried in the corners and the big man that wasn’t setting the screen would stay on the block:
Walker ends up splitting the double team and getting himself into the teeth of the defense, where he is surrounded by three Marquette defenders with all five sets of eyes on him. Notice where his four teammates are on the floor. Ton have moved from where they were in the first image:
This possession actually worked out. The pass you see Walker throwing should have been stolen, but it bounced around and into Oriakhi’s hands for a layup.
This is what every possession looked like for the Huskies down the stretch. Its tough to pin the blame directly on Kemba. Even on the turnovers he had late in the game, the blame falls on his shoulders as much as it does his teammates that stood 30 feet away from him without moving while he was getting double teamed.
The issue with UConn isn’t necessarily that Kemba is a ball hog. The issue is the lack of movement they get on the offensive end. So much of what they do offensively is centered around Kemba’s ability off the dribble, and rightfully so. Its impossible to stay in front of him and he’s so dangerous once he gets into the paint. The risk involved is that the rest of the Huskies have a tendency to stand and watch Kemba instead of moving into an open spot. Not only does that limit the passing angles Kemba can find, it also makes it much, much easier to play help defense. In other words, a stagnant UConn offense makes it easy to collapse on Kemba in the paint.
Part of that blame has to fall on the shoulders on the players. They are the ones actually on the court, standing and watching. But the coaching staff is also at fault as well. There are ways to incorporate a high ball screen into an offensive set. Here is a perfect example from UConn’s win over Georgetown.
Kemba had passed the ball up the right side of the floor to Lamb, who is standing on the right wing:
As Kemba cuts through the defense to the left wing, Coombs-McDaniel, who was standing on the left wing, cut under the basket to the right corner. Lamb swung the ball up top to Smith who swings it again to Kemba:
Oriakhi comes and sets a ball screen from Kemba, who attacks the middle off the bounce. At the same time, Coombs-McDaniel comes off of a staggered screen being set by Lamb and Smith. The help comes at Kemba, who finds Coombs-McDaniel open on the wing for a three when his defender got hung up on a screen:
For UConn to win games in March, the Huskies cannot rely simply on Kemba Walker going one-on-one.
They are going to need his supporting cast to step up. The best way to do that?
Keep them moving on the offensive end of the floor.
Kemba’s a ballhog, yes, but that is just a symptom of a bigger problem for the Huskies.