There would be something universally appealing, even to members of the Basketball Atheists Society, about the hoop gods arranging an NCAA championship game pitting UConn against BYU.
Unlike the NBA, rarely in college basketball do we get to see the two best players in the sport go head-to-head to decide the biggest prize. We missed out on Durant vs. Oden in ’07, Carmelo vs. D-Wade in ’03, Shaq vs. Laettner in ’92, and Ralph Sampson vs. whoever could have challenged him during the three years he was the reigning MVP of the NCAA.
What we did get, unforgettably, was Magic vs. Bird in ’79. And if things fall into place during this year’s March Madness, we could have that again with Kemba Walker vs. Jimmer Fredette in 2011.
Odds are they won’t go on to become NBA legends, but the UConn junior and BYU senior could convey the spirit of ’79: Kemba, city kid with the big smile, running the show with wizard-like showmanship for his big-conference school. Jimmer, dead-eye shooter with the high-major game, finding himself carrying a mid-major contender to unprecedented glory. Oh, and there’s that Black/White thing. The Stormin’ Mormons versus a team with guys named Shabazz, Jamal and Roscoe. But you already saw that, and whether that matters to you is up to you.
The likelihood of the Huskies (13-2) and Cougars (17-1) advancing to the Final Four and beyond is another breakdown for another day, but today it’s clear that Walker and Fredette are in an individual battle for National Player of the Year. And right now, I’d give Walker my vote.
Walker is averaging 25.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.3 steals per game. He leads his team in three of those categories, and is tied for second in rebounding as a 6-foot-1 guard. He is essentially the Derrick Rose and the Chris Paul of college basketball wrapped in one package.
Crunching numbers is only a small part of it, though, because stats-wise, Walker and Fredette are too close to call. What sets Walker apart is that he is the most electrifying and most clutch player in the country. But more importantly, he has achieved that status against the toughest competition. Call it the TCU/Boise State argument: And while the Mountain West Conference may not include the Little Sisters of the Poor as a member school, in the end Fredette loses out to Walker because his stage simply isn’t big enough.
Walker scored 30 points against Michigan State, 29 against Kentucky, and 22 against Texas. The Huskies won each of those games, with Walker hitting the game-winner against Texas on the road. He also put up 31 points in a loss to Pittsburgh, and had a triple-double (24 pts, 13 rebs, 10 asts) in a win over Maryland-Baltimore County. Aside from a Jan. 22 matchup with Tennessee, from now until March, Walker will be tested against teams from the Big East, the deepest conference in the nation.
UConn has already faced five teams that were ranked in the national top 25 at the time they played. (Three were in the top 10.) In those five games, Walker averaged 26.2 points, 5.0 boards, 3.6 dimes and 3.0 steals, and the Huskies went 3-2.
BYU has played zero ranked teams, and if status quo maintains, their two games against San Diego State (Jan. 26, Feb. 26) will be the Cougars’ only tough challenges. I’m not saying Fredette can’t light up top-level competition — because he can and he has — but you have to take his numbers this season with a pinch of salt because he’s not doing it now. It’s simple: Are you more impressed with yourself when you put up 50 points in Madden against your boy, or against your girl?
So far the biggest criticism of Walker is that he’s only putting up big stats because he’s gunning. Does Walker take a lot of shots? Sure. He has to, because UConn is young and without much of an identity beyond “Pass it to Kemba.” In that respect, I have to agree with something Gilbert Arenas told me once:
“Basketball is a game of skills,” Arenas said, “and no one ever looks at it like this, but do you call Jason Kidd selfish or do you call Steve Nash selfish because they pass too much? Do you call Dwight Howard or Ben Wallace selfish for rebounding or blocking shots all the time? That’s what they’re good at, so you let them do that.
“I’m a great scorer,” Arenas went on. “If you say, ‘Take this guy who’s averaging 30 points and make him average 10 assists,’ you’re not using my ability. Kobe could average 10 assists, but that’s not Kobe. Ben Wallace could try to score 10 more points, but that’s not what he’s there for. … I’ve been a great scorer my whole career. I could average 10 assists no problem, but no coach has asked me to do that. It’s like, you have to let Jordan be Jordan; he can’t be anything else.”
Kemba isn’t Jordan. He may not even be Arenas, but the guy is a scorer. In his third college game, coming off the bench, he dropped 23 points against La Salle. In high school he dropped 88 points in one game at a summer tournament in The Bronx. If scoring is his most useful skill to help his team win — and UConn is winning — Walker should be taking 18.6 field goals per game. (Fredette is taking 18.3 shots a night, yet I don’t hear anyone calling him a ball-hog.)
It’s close, of course. I’m not giving Walker a “hands down” punctuation or dismissing anyone who believes Fredette is the best player in America. I understand the argument for Jimmer Fredette as National Player of the Year.
I just know the argument for Kemba Walker is stronger.