Column: Walking the walk without Walker
Published: Thursday, November 10, 2011
Updated: Friday, November 11, 2011 01:11
The wait is finally over.
Tonight the men's basketball team will officially begin its title defense. The championship banner will be unveiled, tributes will be paid and the Huskies will take the court for the first time in a meaningful game since winning the championship in Houston.
And once the whistle blows and the ball goes up, the whole cycle will begin anew. It's a whole new year with a whole new team, but the goal remains the same – to bring the championship back to Storrs once again.
The team is loaded and expectations are high, so there's no reason to believe this year shouldn't be a good one. But before we cancel the season and crown the team right now, there's a big question remaining that can't be ignored.
How will they do without Kemba Walker?
I don't have an answer to that question now, and we probably won't get one until midway through the Big East schedule, but you can't lose a player like Walker and expect to just carry on smoothly without him. He was the best player in the country and the engine that drove last year's team to the championship. You take him out of the equation and what happens?
Last year? Probably disaster.
But this year?
The team will have to recalibrate somehow, but this year's team should have the pieces to transition successfully, even if nobody is quite at Walker's level. I expect we'll likely see a shift toward a more frontcourt-oriented style of play as a start. Last year, there wasn't much depth up front, at least not early on, but this year the Huskies will have the luxury of an improved Alex Oriakhi, a dominant newcomer in Andre Drummond, two versatile wingmen in Roscoe Smith and DeAndre Daniels and a solid, fundamentally sound body off the bench in Tyler Olander.
If you can't have Walker torment every defender who gets in his way, then you might as well take advantage of the superfreshman who can dunk on anyone and the gang of big men who can wear down everyone who tries.
But even if you don't have Walker to break down defenses, the guards who remain from last year's team might be more than up to the task.
Jeremy Lamb is a preseason All-American and is considered by most people to be one of the best players in the country going into this year. He emerged late last year to become a force, and now he will likely become the guy taking the last shot at the end of games in place of Walker. There isn't anyone else quite like Lamb out there, with his height, long arms, shooting ability and composure, so it'll be interesting to see just how productive he will be.
And then, of course, there is Shabazz Napier. A sophomore co-captain, Napier will likely be called upon to be the engine of this year's offense, much like Walker was last year. He's the best ball handler on the team, a lockdown defender and most importantly, he can log minutes.
And that matters, because there isn't going to be a lot behind him in terms of backup. Freshman Ryan Boatright will be relied upon a lot because Napier shouldn't have to play 40 minutes a game, but beyond him, that's about it.
The pieces are clearly there, and they are good ones, but the tricky thing is that unlike last year, nobody jumps out as "the guy" quite as obviously as Walker did. Lamb could be the best player, Oriakhi could be the biggest presence, Napier could be the ringleader on the court and Drummond could be the difference maker.
But together, could the Huskies be champions?
Follow Mac Cerullo on Twitter at @MacCerullo.