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TMA: Pitt's balance tops Kemba's brilliance

12/28/2010

The Morning After is our semi-daily recap of last night's best hoops action. It rediscovered the joys of a full eight hours over Christmas break. It will not feel those joys again for a while.

No. 6 Pittsburgh 78, No. 4 Connecticut 63: It is impossible to stop Kemba Walker from scoring 30 points.

OK, so it's not literally impossible; Walker's average has dipped -- "dipped" being a relative term here -- to 26.5 points per game in recent weeks. But it's very, very difficult. Walker is a scoring machine, one of those players that can have an "off night" and still manage to throw up a tidy 30-plus points in 40 minutes as if the task was casual, even effortless. He's brilliant to behold.

Unfortunately for UConn, the Huskies not only need Walker to score a whole mess of points every game. They need him to do so efficiently. Monday night's Big East-opening effort proved that it's nearly impossible to keep Walker from leading all scorers. But it also showed that even if you can't keep Walker off the top of the scoreline, you can keep him from singlehandedly ripping your heart out and handing it to you during postgame handshakes. You can't stop Kemba, but you can contain Kemba's team. Pittsburgh did exactly that Monday night.

Walker had to take 27 shots to get to 31 points Monday night; he made 10 field goals, and only 3-of-11 from beyond the arc, and an off-shooting night wasn't the only reason why. Pittsburgh did the things you have to do to keep Walker from dominating the game. The Panthers slowed the game down and made UConn play in the half court. They shaded to Walker with help defense whenever he got past the first defender. They forced him into tough, double-clutch mid-range jumpers. They challenged every one of his finishes at the rim. Because UConn lacks a consistent second scorer -- let alone the sort of offensive balance Pittsburgh has from top-to-bottom -- the Panthers were able to take the Huskies out of the game even as Walker racked up the points. Walker scored 31 points, sure, but Pittsburgh's defense was arguably dominant.

Of course, it didn't hurt that Pittsburgh was thoroughly good on offense, too. Gary McGhee and company weren't their usual dominating selves on the offensive glass. UConn actually grabbed a higher percentage of their misses than did Pitt, which came into Monday night's game leading the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. But the Panthers were so balanced and collected on offense -- typical Pitt, that -- that grabbing a "mere" 40.7 percent of their misses was plenty. Offensive boards tend to shrink in importance when you get this many open looks.

Was UConn exposed? I won't go that far. This was a tough road environment against a top-10 squad, plus any other standard disclaimers you'd like to apply. Were UConn's flaws laid bare? I'd say so. The Huskies are, to this point, a one-man team. The good news? That one man is really, really good. The bad news? When that one man has to work so hard to be productive, and the opposing team has an arsenal of offensive weapons at its disposal, Connecticut is going to have a tough time hanging with quality opponents in the Big East no matter the venue.

Monday night, Pittsburgh looked like a top-five team. UConn looked like a star surrounded by his entourage. Until the Huskies become less of the latter and more of the former, they're going to lose games like this one. That simple.

Everywhere else: Oy vey. Indiana fans riding the team's recent recruiting highs were brought back to reality in the past seven days, when Indiana, in order, lost to Northern Iowa, Colorado and now Penn State. Worse yet, the Penn State loss came at home, and worst yet, Penn State's last game was a 10-point loss to Maine in Happy Valley. This Indiana team was picked to finish eighth in the Big Ten. It was supposed to improve in bits, rack up some nonconference wins, and maybe get to .500 by the end of the year if everything went right. Instead, the Hoosiers appear to be every bit the struggling entity they were last season, and Tyler Zeller or not, no IU fan will want to live through that one again ... Ohio State did unspeakable things to Tennessee-Martin in a downright unfair 100-40 win in Columbus ... Missouri had no problems with Northern Illinois ... Louisville intelligently scheduled this home date with Morgan State, which is likely to end up in the NCAA tournament out of the MEAC again this season ... Clemson blew out the nation's slowest team, Delaware State, 76-41 ... and UAB got a decent win over 5-6 George Washington in Birmingham.