Huskies Ready to Start Over

HARTFORD – UConn associate head coach George Blaney took one look at Kemba Walker Thursday night and joked with coach Jim Calhoun that perhaps an appeal to the NBA might be worth considering.

"If he's not going to play there, he still has a year [of elgibility], so why not play with us?" Calhoun said. "I personally think it's kind of a waste of time right now. He's not doing anything."

Walker, of course, can't come return. The idea was all in good fun. And fun was the featured item on the menu at the Connecticut Convention Center as more than 800 people showed up to honor the UConn team that won the 2011 men's NCAA national championship. The biggest ovation of the night went to Walker, who was named Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four and then gave up his final year at UConn to enter the NBA.

In an ordinary year, Walker would have been at training camp with the Charlotte Bobcats and might not have made it back for the banquet and championship ring ceremony. But the leader of last season's remarkable run has been hanging out in Storrs recently, playing pick up games and offering up some more of his leadership expertise while the NBA deals with its lockout and the possible cancellation of an entire season.

"Oh no; no regrets at all," Walker said. "I went No. 9 in the draft. I've been drafted by Michael Jordan."

On a night reserved for the past, Calhoun acknowledged the Huskies will need to find a new chemistry without Walker, the point guard who led UConn down such a special path last season. But Calhoun isn't shy about hyping the 2011-12 version of the Huskies.

"We're more talented right now," Calhoun said. "It doesn't mean we're going to win as many games. It doesn't mean we're going to win a national championship. I think we can. But my point being, simply, last year's team ended up having the best 11-game run. … They did the job."

Calhoun's optimism for the upcoming season hinges on the return of forward Alex Oriakhi and guard Jeremy Lamb. But UConn's three incoming freshmen, who sat at a separate table Thursday night – away from the championship participants on the dais – have a great deal to do with the positive outlook.

Rookies Ryan Boatwright, DeAndre Daniels, and Andre Drummond were warmly received by the crowd. During pickup games, Walker has had his eye on Drummond, the highly touted freshman who might join Walker in the NBA next season.

"He's a monster," Walker said of Drummond. "He doesn't even know what he has yet."

Drummond's surprise post on Twitter in August let the world know that he was joining the Huskies. Walker said he was surprised, but very happy that Drummond would be on board with his former teammates.

"We are losing a lot in Kemba, but I feel this team is talented and has a lot of great individual basketball players," Oriakhi said. "That should be enough to make up for that. The biggest thing we have to replace is the scoring load. . . . But we're all getting better. If one person isn't hot, we have a lot of depth."

And this should be a comforting fact for UConn fans. Walker has been working closely with Shabazz Napier, the talented sophomore who will replace Walker at point guard.

"Shabazz has me on speed dial," Walker said. "He can call me whenever he wants. I know last year he spoke a lot when he wasn't supposed to be speaking. But this year he has mellowed out a lot. He's a true leader. Those guys look up to him, believe it or not, and listen to him. I'm proud of him."

The Huskies will get down to serious work next week. The Husky Run, on Oct. 12, is the traditional end to offseason workouts. That will be followed by First Night at Gampel Pavilion on Oct. 14 and the first practice of the season the next day.

"We'll tell them, you don't start 11-0, you start 0-0," Calhoun said.

That was the whole point of the banquet and ring ceremony. Last year officially has been put to rest.

"This is the end," Lamb said. "The only thing left from last year is memories."

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