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Heart and Soul

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    Connecticut’s Kemba Walker celebrated after hitting the winning bucket against Pittsburgh in the Big East tournament.

Ask Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun how Kemba Walker’s confidence compares with that of other elite players he has coached, and he stops for a moment to put his junior guard in perspective.

“Everybody’s different,” Calhoun said during his team’s five-day, five-win run to a Big East tournament championship. “Emeka (Okafor) never said anything. He just had it. He was kind of regal. Ben (Gordon) was kind of shy. To this day, he’s a little bit shy.

“But Kemba’s an outgoing personality. He’s really worked on his game, shooting-wise. He always had the quickness, always had the heart, but he’s 186 pounds of terrific athlete who can make shots. That, to me, is pretty special.”

And that was before Walker drained a stepback jumper at the buzzer to knock off top-seeded Pittsburgh, perhaps the highlight of a record 130 points in five games. Now, with all but two of the Big East’s record 11 teams eliminated in the NCAA Tournament’s first three rounds, Walker is carrying not only UConn but much of his conference’s postseason hopes.

“I’ve definitely grown as a player, but the biggest thing about my game is I’ve grown as a leader,” Walker said of his progress to one of the nation’s leading scorers this season. “I’m being a great leader vocally for my team, and I did a great job of helping some of the younger guys develop. Being a leader was the biggest asset to my game this year.”

His quickness and scoring ability are rivaled only by his confidence, which oozes from him on the court and off. Ask him which Big East guard can stay with him best defensively, and he matter-of-factly responds that there aren’t any who can do that.

“Nobody,” he said. “There’s a lot of help defense in this league. Teams doubling me, tripling me. As far as anybody staying in front of me, nobody.”

Walker’s strong play has continued in the NCAA Tournament, including a 33-point effort in UConn’s win against Cincinnati to earn a spot in the Sweet 16. With UConn down 15-7 early, Walker had eight points in 87 seconds, and he went 6-for-6 on free throws in the final 51 seconds to close out the 69-58 win, part of a 14-for-14 night at the line.

“Beginning of the season, I always told him he was the best point guard in the country. I don’t think he believed me,” teammate Alex Oriakhi said. “I’m pretty sure he believes me now. He’s definitely a confident player. You can definitely see it out there in the shots he makes, the things he does. It has to come with confidence.

“He knows what he’s capable of, knows it’s really hard to guard him. He’s able to back it up with whatever he says.”

Calhoun has lauded Walker as a national player of the year candidate, saying no individual means more to his team than Walker has to the Huskies this season. The coach publicly aired his disbelief that a fellow Big East coach left Walker off one first-team all-conference ballot, suggesting that the coach must have been on vacation for the previous five months.

“He’s as good a player as there is in America,” Calhoun said. “I can’t believe (anyone) would ever see him play, see the joy with which he plays, the speed with which he plays, the ability he plays with, the pure love of the game, and think he is not as good a player as there is in the league.”

UConn honored Walker as part of its senior day, anticipating him entering the NBA Draft. The Bronx native talked in New York about his desire to play for the Knicks, to play alongside his favorite player, Carmelo Anthony. For now, he’s just continuing his emergence on college basketball’s biggest stage.

Two years ago as a freshman, Walker had one of his breakout games in a region final win against Missouri, scoring a season-high 23. Such an effort is now the norm for him, and he’ll have another chance to show what he can do tomorrow night as the third-seeded Huskies take on second-seeded San Diego State in Anaheim for a spot in the Elite Eight.

“This year, he knows it’s him, and we need him,” Oriakhi said. “He’s the heart and soul of this team. He knows it and buys into it.”

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