Some mid-afternoon thoughts on today’s games filling the heart of the day…
- Alex Oriakhi hits the boards. Kemba Walker may get all of the post-game hype after his great finish in UConn‘s big road win at Texas, but for our money the player of the game and the one that we think Jim Calhoun will credit most for the win will be Alex Oriakhi. Calhoun has been all over Oriakhi lately for his lack of rebounding (seven straight games with single-digit rebounds including just one rebound in their loss at Pittsburgh). When I spoke with Calhoun after the Huskies’ New Year’s Eve victory over USF all I had to say was “Alex” before he cut me off and went on a rant about Oriakhi’s lack of rebounding. He was quick to note that Alex was working hard, but that he thought he might have been pressing. After speaking with Calhoun I went back to Alex and asked him about it and he essentially told me that he couldn’t really do anything about rebounding because it wasn’t something that he could do anything about, which I disagree with completely, but he seemed like such a nice kid and seemed troubled enough about it that I didn’t want to tell him that he was wrong (especially since my 5’10” frame and lack of a vertical has been a major hindrance in the progress of my basketball career). He followed it up with an even worse game against Notre Dame where he failed to score a point and only had six rebounds. I wasn’t at the game, but I imagine that Calhoun was very critical of him after that game. Fast forward a few days to today against a Texas team that came in to the game ranked 3rd in the nation in rebounds and one that was expected to dominate the Huskies on the inside with Jordan Hamilton, Tristan Thompson, and Gary Johnson. Instead of getting dominated on the inside, Oriakhi turned in by far his best game since Maui and nearly matched the Longhorn trio in rebound total (22 to 21). Even though he struggled from the field going 5 of 16, Oriakhi more than made up for it on the boards and was probably the star of the game even if the rest of the media is going to focus on Kemba’s late game heroics. UConn is still a flawed team as it relies too much on Kemba to do what he did in overtime and it has too many young players who are still working on learning their roles playing around Kemba, but if Oriakhi can play like this on a more consistent basis the Huskies could be a team that nobody wants to play in March with Kemba on the outside and Alex on the inside.
- Kemba Walker saves the day. Now that we have talked about Alex Oriakhi, we can get to Kemba Walker who shrugged off a rare off-night (going 8-27 from the field even with his late game heroics including the ridiculous heave to beat the shot clock with a little over 2 minutes left in OT). We have to give the Texas guards some credit for their defense on Kemba throughout the game, but we saw at the end of the game that there really isn’t anybody in college who can guard him. Rick Barnes had Dogus Balbay, who for our money is one of the best defensive guards in the nation, on Walker at the end of the game and Walker just brushed him off to him the game-winner with 5 seconds left in overtime. Walker might lose some of his early lead in the National Player of the Year race if UConn struggles in the Big East and he has plenty of competition particularly from Jared Sullinger and Nolan Smith, but the UConn PR department will probably have plenty of moments like late in today’s game to hype Walker’s candidacy if they choose to do so.
- Roscoe Smith’s heave. We aren’t even sure where to begin with Roscoe Smith. Although it doesn’t quite rank up there with Jamelle Horne‘s pair of boneheaded plays from 2 years ago Smith’s 75-foot heave with nearly 10 seconds left in regulation is going to be replayed on blooper shows for years to come. We are going to give Smith a little bit of a pass (a very little bit) as I would imagine that the frantic finish and blocked shot by Alex Oriakhi that led to the ball ending up in Smith’s hands would have made it very difficult for anybody to be aware of how much time was left on the clock especially a 6’8″ freshman forward who is probably never asked to touch the ball late in games (and after this probably won’t for some time). I’m not sure words can do justice to just how bad this heave was and we can’t find any video footage of this shot yet, but when we do we will be sure to put it up.
- Georgia knocks off Kentucky. It has already been a rough weekend for Kentucky. First there was the Enes Kanter ruling then there was the football team getting blown out by a Pittsburgh team that was playing without its recently hired head coach who had been fired after getting arrested on charges of domestic violence. Now their basketball team drops the SEC opener at Georgia. Before the fan base goes crazy (and we are guessing that based on the 4,573 fans on CatsPause at the time we wrote this that they are going crazy) we should point out that that the Bulldog team that they lost to could be very good. They have flown under the radar after losing two games at the Old Spice Classic to Notre Dame and Temple (two very good teams) in Trey Thompkins first games back after an early-season ankle injury. Since that time the Bulldogs have reeled off nine straight wins against some admittedly uninspiring opponents in somewhat unconvincing fashion (four games decided by three points or less). We are not sure if Georgia is a top 25 team, but we should have a better idea by January 18th as they play at Vanderbilt and at home against Tennessee during a three-game stretch. If they come out of that stretch with a 2-1 record don’t be surprised if this team is near the top of the SEC East standings by the end of the season.