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Kemba Walker is Connecticut’s driving force

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HOUSTON — When Connecticut’s players filed out of the breakfast room at their team hotel Saturday morning, six players followed in lockstep behind a certain 6-foot-1 junior from the Bronx.

“I thought to myself as I saw that, ‘That’s kind of who we are and what we are in many, many ways,’ ” Huskies Coach Jim Calhoun recalled.

After three weeks of NCAA tournament upheaval that saw all-Americans humbled and unlikely upstarts emerge, the player who entered the event as the nation’s most indomitable force remains just that on the season’s final day. And after a season full of sensational efforts, Kemba Walker is one more 40-minute performance away from capping one of the greatest runs in tournament history.

The Huskies have won 10 consecutive single-elimination tournament games — dating from their five wins en route to the Big East tournament title — in large part because of the emergence of freshmen like Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier. But as even Napier pointed out, there is a reason why U-Conn. this season was called the “University of Kemba” and the Huskies were deemed “Kemba and the Little Guys.”

“He is still our hero,” Napier said.

If Walker is able to lead the Huskies to a victory over Butler in Monday’s national title game, he will join a small fraternity that includes former Kansas great Danny Manning as singular talents who carried their teams to a championship. Walker has taken a band of mostly freshmen and sophomores — a team that finished ninth in the Big East regular season standings — to the brink of the school’s third national title.

Under Calhoun, U-Conn. has produced a number of stars who are recognizable by first names only: Caron [Butler], Ray [Allen], Rip [Hamilton], Emeka [Okafor], Ben [Gordon]. Not only is Walker in that class, Calhoun said, but Walker is fast encroaching on the greatest season of any U-Conn. player in history.

“No player in the country does what Kemba does,” Calhoun said.

It’s not just that Walker scored a record 130 points in five Big East tournament games, or that he’s accounted for 45 percent of his team’s scoring this season.

Walker entered the season averaging 11.7 points per game. After honing his mid-range game in the offseason, he has scored more than that average 37 times in one half of basketball.

At the beginning of the season, Napier said, players sat back somewhat in awe and watched Walker’s offensive exploits, waiting for him to do something spectacular. But through the course of the season, Walker has infused them with confidence and has stepped back to allow them to shine at times.

Calhoun, who views Walker as an extension of himself on and off the court, said “they listen and follow because they trust each other; that’s the single most important part of this deal.”

Aside from scoring or facilitating, Napier said, the mere presence of Walker on the court “allows us to be as good as we are. [Opponents] have to have all eyes on him at all times.”

Among Walker’s biggest challenges Monday: fatigue. During the 10-game run, Walker has played 384 of 405 possible minutes. And there were signs in Saturday’s national semifinal victory over Kentucky that Walker was fatigued throughout the second half. Walker admitted as much — “it was a struggle,” he said — but attributed it to the game’s breakneck speed and few stoppages in action down the stretch.

Calhoun asked Walker during a late timeout whether he needed a 30-second rest. Bent over, Walker was too gassed to answer. So Calhoun kept him in the game.

“Last night was a hard 40 minutes,” Calhoun said. But with Napier’s emergence, it allows Calhoun to play the freshman more at point guard and have Walker get a respite while playing off the ball.

The other challenge for Walker will be a self-described flat-footed reserve guard on Butler named Ronald Nored. A rare player whose identity is defined by his oft-described robotic defensive stance, Nored is expected to be the primary player who guards Walker.

The 6-foot Nored said he has played against and covered Walker twice, both in summer league events in high school, although he does not remember exactly how he fared.

After enjoying Walker’s performances as a fan this season, Nored said he planned to spend the rest of the day Sunday studying Walker’s every crossover dribble and step-back jumper.

“The great thing about people is that they all have tendencies,” Nored said. “Everyone has something that they are good at. Everyone has something that they are probably not as good at or not as efficient at going a certain way.”

Butler Coach Brad Stevens acknowledged that it will take a team effort just to contain Walker, who has seen his share of traps and double- and triple-teams all season. Walker knows to expect a physical game, especially after Florida Coach Billy Donovan said that Butler was the most physical defense his Gators had faced all season.

But Walker has overcome all obstacles, all styles of play the past 10 games. It was not until after U-Conn. won the Big East tournament that Walker allowed himself to wonder whether the Huskies would win the national title.

Since then, he has publicly said that he believes it is destiny. And for a couple weeks now, Walker said, he has had reoccurring visions of the postgame celebration inside Reliant Stadium.

“I can’t stop thinking about it, honestly,” he said.

He envisions clipping a strand of the nylon net with scissors. He envisions standing on a stage, looking up and watching the “One Shining Moment” montage. If that vision comes true, like always, his teammates will follow his lead.

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