Beyond the Boxscore
As Reliant Stadium came into view and UConn coach Jim Calhoun played tour guide, Shabazz Napier did a double take. UConn's freshman point guard needed a moment.
Something of a Final Four breather.
"We were driving in from the airport and Coach was like, 'That's the stadium,' " Napier says. "It was so huge. It's like, 'That's where we're playing. You sure that's a basketball stadium.' "
It is this week and Napier wasn't the only one who needed a minute (or 10) to let the literal enormity of a Houston Final Four sink in. A few Kentucky assistant coaches stopped and gawked through glass windows at the Houston Texans' gleaming weight room, marveling at the size and scope of an NFL team's digs. And these were coaches from one of the all-time powers in college basketball, a roundball mad land with some of the most expensive facilities in college basketball.
One man wasn't wowed by his first look at the Houston Final Four though.
UConn guard Kemba Walker — the most dangerous scorer left in the field and Las Vegas' overwhelming favorite to take home Final Four MOP (Most Outstanding Player) honors — does not do taken aback.
Walker dazzles others. Nothing fazes him.
That's way of a player who's pulled an once completely dismissed UConn team (picked to finish 10th in the Big East in the preseason) along on one of the most impressive solo-star-driven tournament runs of all time.
"It's another arena," Walker says, shrugging. "You still have to make shots."
Walker does that better than anyone. This is a volume shooter who's taken 327 more shots than any of his teammates this season, 215 more than his counterpart on Kentucky (Brandon Knight). Walker's been carrying a team with seven freshmen and two sophomores all year and he's even upped his share of the burden in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 26.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game on college basketball's grandest stage.
When asked what he would do to stop himself if was assigned to guard a Kemba Walker, the man himself doesn't hesitate.
"I wouldn't be able to," Walker grins.
That is Kentucky's worry in Saturday night's second semifinal game, the heavyweight matchup between basketball powers. It might sound harsh to call VCU-Butler the appetizing opener, but it's also true. Sports fans who want to see a bunch of NBA prospects going up against each other will be focused on UConn-Kentucky and particularly the point guard duel between Walker and Knight.
Walker's seen more junk thrown at him this season than Sanford and Son. If there's a gimmick defense out there, it's been employed against the 6-foot-1, 172-pounder who's drawn Allen Iverson comparisons from no less an authority than AI's former college coach, John Thompson. Triangle and two. Box and one. Two guys told to do nothing but stay stuck to Kemba.
Kentucky is unlikely to rely on similar tactics though.
The Wildcats are too talented individually to rely on junk defense schemes. Calhoun seems to expect Kentucky to do what he says the Huskies did against Arizona star Derrick Williams in the West Regional final: Focus on locking down the other four players on the court, assuming that one man cannot win a game alone.
All the other one-man shows have been sent home for March after all. Jimmer Fredette? Long gone. D-Will? Kicked to the curb.
Making Walker into a passer is no assurance of success. Bucknell — a Patriot League team that had little choice but to try and trap the ball out of Walker's hands in an NCAA Tournament mismatch — watched him rack up 12 assists, with Calhoun estimating that "eight or nine of those" came in the first half.
Walker's New York City high school nickname was E-Z Pass. And it wasn't for the ease in which he gets to the rim. It was about his willingness to give up the ball.
"Nothing he does surprises me," Napier says. "He just takes over games in whatever way the defense gives him."
Calhoun insists that he's going to give his Huskies plenty of freedom in Houston.
"We will find a way to somehow get over to Bracket Town," Calhoun says of the interactive fan fest at George R. Brown. "In my opinion, this experience is your reward for a great season. The guys have put themselves in position to get here and now you've got to let them enjoy it."
Walker's joy seems to come in hitting game winners. No one has hit more big ones in college basketball this season, even though UConn's opponents know that Walker is going to be taking the last shot no matter what.
"Wow, I can't describe that feeling," he says. "I can't. It's amazing, just an incredible high."
A few moments later, Walker was gone, hopping into a golf cart for the trip down the endless corridors in the bowels of Reliant. Walker barely glanced up as he passed the smoke machine that CBS has set up to add some visual wows to its player intros, the team logos projected on the walls and all the people milling about.
The best player in Houston doesn't do shocked or bothered. He just shoots.