Heading into this game, Pitt is giving an awful lot of credit towards junior guard Kemba Walker. And why not. Walker is second in the country with 26.5 points a game, and has a streak of nine consecutive games with at least 20 points. That in itself is the third-longest streak in UConn's extensive history.
"Kemba's having a really great season for them," senior Gary McGhee said. "He turned it up for them down at Maui (Invitational). He's a great player. He likes to get out in transition. He likes to make the easy layups. He's a good ball handler. He's a great player."
Ashton Gibbs is one of the players who may be in charge of defending Walker tonight. Gibbs admitted on Sunday that he could be faced with the task, but there could be others matched up against Walker too.
"We'll see," Gibbs said. "I‘m not sure yet. (Jamie Dixon) didn't assign who is going to guard him. Everybody, I think, is going to guard him. I am, Brad (Wanamaker), Gil (Brown) might even guard him as well. We have to switch defenders on him."
In recent games, though, it's been more than Walker helping UConn to some big wins as opposed to him single-handedly winning them games. The Huskies already have two wins over top-ten teams--a 70-67 win over then No. 2 Michigan State at the Maui Invitational last month. They beat then No. 9 Kentucky the next day, 84-67.
In the win over Michigan State, though it was Walker with a game-high 30 points, the Huskies had a 15-point, 17-rebound performance from Alex Oriakhi. They also had freshmen Roscoe Smith and Shabazz Napier come off the bench to score eight points and seven points, respectively.
In the win over Kentucky, Napier came off the bench to score 12, while Niels Giffey--a freshman from Berlin, Germany--scored 14 points in just his fourth career start.
Overall, Jim Calhoun has used six true freshmen, including some that have become regular starters. In addition to Giffey, Napier and Smith, he has forward Tyler Olander and Enosch Wolf in his front court. Olander has made four starts and is coming off a season-best seven-point, seven-rebound performance in UConn's most recent game against Harvard. The Huskies added 7-1 center Enosch Wolf just before last Monday's game against Coppin State. He has averaged eight minutes in the two games since then.
Despite the recent success of UConn's freshmen, and the fact they've played against top-notch competition in Kentucky and Michigan State--and done well--Calhoun said opening the Big East season, particularly on a Monday night in December as opposed to January, will be a whole new challenge for a group that has already progressed quite a bit from where they were at the start of the season. In other words, the Pitt-UConn game takes on a whole new meaning, regardless of what the team's do in their non-conference schedule. The fact that the Big East wanted these two teams on national television two days after Christmas should shed some light on that.
"We'll bring seven freshmen to the building," Calhoun said. "We can't describe it. (Sophomores) Alex (Oriakhi) and Jamal (Coombs-McDaniel) haven't been here; that's nine (first-time players at Petersen Events Center). They've dressed before, but three guys have only (played) here before. When you play at Pitt, it's become to mean you're visiting the Steelers."
Calhoun looked back to that win over Kentucky, then to his team's most recent win over Harvard last week. In both cases, he felt his team tightened up defensively. He did feel everything was coming more natural--particularly for the younger players--in the win over Harvard, than it did less than a month ago.
"We jumped on (Harvard) defensively," Calhoun explained. "Kentucky is the best defense we've played all year. We were Maui-like (against Harvard). We played defense like (they did at the Maui Invitational). If you play that defense, it gets more people involved in our offense as opposed to having to set up every time."
Pitt is a deep team. Even though they might be younger, UConn is proving to be just as deep, especially the way this freshman class has responded. One person not surprised by UConn's 10-0 start, and No. 4 national ranking, is Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon.
"I don't know how you can be surprised by anybody in our league who has had success," Dixon said. "They're going to have good players ready to go. They're going to bring good players in. Their coach has won a lot of games. Coach Calhoun has obviously won a few games before. I don't think that will change this year."
Still, Gibbs believes that Walker sets puts the wheels in motion for a lot of these younger players to step up and make plays. Even if Walker isn't scoring, or doing all the scoring, he's doing things to set up the other players around him. With some of those other players stepping up and producing more as the season has gone along, Gibbs believes shutting down Walker is the key to beating the Huskies.
"They have a couple other guys, but at the same time I feel if you shut (Walker) down, that will be the key," Gibbs added. "I think if we shut him down, we'll be fine. We have to contain him. He does a lot for their offense. We contain him, and not let him go off on us like he has against other teams in the past, we'll be fine."