No Walk In The Park

He's not exactly a shoo-in for Big East Conference player of the year (Notre Dame's Ben Hansbrough and St. John's star Dwight Hardy might have something to say about that), but UConn guard Kemba Walker is one of the nation's top players, according to WVU head coach Bob Huggins.

Walker has been the catalyst for another solid season for the No. 16 Huskies, who will face the Mountaineers tonight at 7:00 p.m. at the Coliseum.

The junior has scored nearly 23 points per game (second in the Big East only to Providence's Marshon Brooks) and has lead a team filled with underclassmen to a 21-7 year, a 9-7 Big East record and a top 20 national ranking.

So even though the debate will rage in the next week as to who deserves the league's top individual honor, Huggins' respect for Walker goes beyond the conference level.

"I think he could be national player of the year," the fourth-year Mountaineer head coach said. "He and [forward/center Alex] Oriakhi are the two mainstays they have back. They're playing a bunch of freshmen. The freshmen are having really good years, but he's aided them in having those good years."

But West Virginia (18-10, 9-7) has played well against other teams' stars, and guard Joe Mazzulla said Tuesday that some of the same principles it used in defending Hansbrough (who had a poor offensive night against the Mountaineers in a loss) will also apply to taking on Walker.

That doesn't mean the two players are similar, though.

Mazzulla had said in the lead-up to that win over Notre Dame that WVU wanted Hansbrough to put the ball on the floor and not be a spot-up shooter. Connecticut's Walker, however, is more than comfortable playing off the dribble.

"I think he's got a lot of great attributes," Huggins said. "He's got great speed. He's got great quickness. He's got a great understanding [of the game]. I think he does a great job of reading defenses. He really knows how to play."

Huggins also said film study didn't show any particularly effective defensive tactic against the star guard -- teams that were more physical with Walker weren't any more or less successful on a regular basis than those that backed off him to try to deny dribble penetration.

"Sometimes, he doesn't make as many shots as he does others," the head coach explained. "He gets shots. He's going to get shots. When he wants to get shots, he's going to get shots."


    The aforementioned Oriakhi, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound sophomore, is the other key cog to the UConn attack. Playing off of Walker's ability to drive to the basket, the forward/center averages 10.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per game.

    Perhaps most concerning to Huggins is the big man's ability to collect caroms on the offensive end. He averages better than 3.8 offensive boards per game.

    "Oriakhi's the best offensive rebounder in the league statistically," the WVU coach noted.

    "[Walker's] penetration helps. But he's a good offensive rebounder regardless. He's big. He's strong. He's athletic. But penetration enables him to rebound it better."

    Oriakhi is one of three Connecticut starters who is 6-7 or taller, and like many Huskies teams under coach Jim Calhoun, this one can also block shots (second in the Big East with 6.1 per game) and rebound.

    "They've got great size," Huggins said. "They always, for years and years, led the league in blocked shots. Jim's always taken pride in his team's ability to rebound the basketball. They do a lot of things well.

    "But they're like everybody else: they're a whole lot better when they make shots. That seems to be a common thread."


    The Mountaineers host UConn tonight, just before Louisville comes to Morgantown for both teams' regular season finale on Saturday.

    Between Huggins and the two head coaches who will bring their teams to the Coliseum this week (the Huskies' Calhoun and U of L's Rick Pitino), there will be over 2,100 wins' worth of college coaching experience on the sidelines at WVU this week.

    The three coaches have accounted for 10 Final Four appearances. Huggins has made trips to the national semifinals with two different programs (Cincinnati and West Virginia), while Pitino is the only coach in NCAA history to do so with three schools (Providence, Kentucky and Louisville).

    Of course, there are other great coaches in the Big East Conference as well. So the question was asked of Huggins on Tuesday: what is the tie that binds, the common trait that they all share, even if their coaching philosophies may differ?

    "Most people would think they're crazy," Huggins deadpanned. "There is so much single-mindedness of purpose. That's probably a good way to put it."

    But Huggins also said the better coaches were the ones who learned the most from the ones that came before them. He spoke of legendary coach Bob Knight and his ability to pick the brain of the late Pete Newell. Huggins said he himself took lessons from Knight and the late Al McGuire, among others.

    "Those things are valuable," Huggins said of those chats. "Guys like that have a better understanding of history and a better understanding of how the game has evolved and why it has evolved.

    "Ninety percent of what we do I learned from my dad. But the game changes. It's not the same game my dad coached, and it's not the same game those guys coached. But I think to get to where (the coaching greats are today) you have an understanding of not just what's going on now, but why it's going on and you're able to convey that to a degree."

    Of course, sometimes nothing teaches a young coach more than getting beaten tactically by one of his superiors, an experience he said he had against Knight.

    "When we played against Coach Knight, they would back-cut you and back-screen you," Huggins said. "So we worked really hard on back-cuts and back-screens, and we got re-screened. Then you have to go back and spend a lot of time on the other part of it."

    And while Calhoun and Pitino might have different teams with different players than in the past, Huggins said there are some traits that carry over with any head coach, and those are things that coaches try to attack just as much as any other weakness that shows up in film study.

    "You try to find tendencies. You try and find what they're comfortable with in certain situations or what they're going to go to when they need to go to something," he said.

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