- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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HARTFORD, Conn. -- No team may benefit more from sprinkling in key nonconference games in the middle of its conference season than Connecticut.
The Huskies, who have already built a strong résumé with three wins at the Maui Invitational in November (Wichita State, Michigan State and Kentucky), have added a road win at Texas and a home win over Tennessee amidst a rugged Big East slate.
What other team will have five nonconference wins like that for the NCAA tournament selection committee to peruse?
“It’s a crazy statement, but it’s a little bit easier to play teams like Texas or Tennessee and I’m sure they would say the same thing about playing us,’’ said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun after the Huskies beat Tennessee 72-61 at the XL Center on Saturday. “You don’t know each other quite well. It’s just different. After playing in the Big East for 25 years, it’s a unique burden. It’s not like the ACC.
“The Big Ten may be similar and you can see how tough it is for Tom Izzo [at Michigan State] to get it going in the Big Ten,’’ Calhoun said. “I think this is very good for us to get out of the league. Maui ended up being a season unto itself. We got good stuff out of Texas and we’ll get something out of [Saturday]. This will be a bonus for us.’’
In Maui, Connecticut learned that it has a player of the year favorite and star in Kemba Walker. Beating Texas on the road in overtime showed the Huskies’ true grit after a loss at Notre Dame a few days earlier. Walker showed in Austin how much the Huskies can rely on him in a pinch by making the two biggest shots in the game: a 3-pointer and the game-winning shot.
But Saturday’s win over Tennessee may end up providing the best blueprint for the Huskies moving forward -- something they may not have had without these nonconference tests (it’s also a lesson to other teams in the Big East and other power conferences).
The Volunteers took Walker out of his game (season-low 16 points) by doubling him and challenging him as much as possible. That opened up opportunities for other players and the Huskies were as balanced as they’ve been all season with four players scoring in double figures, including freshmen Roscoe Smith (12 points) and Jeremy Lamb (16 points). Senior center Charles Okwandu made the most important contribution in his career.
The much-maligned Okwandu blocked one key shot, scored six points and had five rebounds to compliment starting forward Alex Oriakhi’s double-double (12 points and 10 boards).
“I think Charles can do that for the rest of the season,’’ Calhoun said. “We just look different with him in there. He’s a better athlete than Alex, not a better basketball player. If we do that, we could be pretty good, no question about it.’’
Okwandu missed his second semester as a sophomore due to academics. He has appeared in 57 games in three years, averaging just 1.7 rebounds and 1.3 points. But he is still a physical presence at 7-feet, 255-pounds that the Huskies desperately need to compliment Oriakhi.
“I’ve been working a long time to help the team like this,’’ Okwandu said. “I was having fun out there from the beginning of the game. I think I’m playing good in practice and if you work hard you see the outcome.’’
Oriakhi said Okwandu’s play was exactly what the Huskies needed and “we believed in him. We can definitely feed off each other.’’
UConn players all said that the double teams Walker faced allowed everyone else to get involved. Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, who was coaching in his first game since serving the first four games of an eight-game SEC suspension, said the plan was to make Walker give up the ball.
To some extent, save a deep 3-pointer at the buzzer to end the first half, the plan worked. But Tennessee still lost.
“UConn is playing better when those other guys play like this,’’ Pearl said. “It makes them harder to cover. It will open up the lane a little bit more on the inside.’’
Connecticut is 16-2 overall, 4-2 in the Big East with a tough road trip to Marquette on Tuesday. But the Huskies are at a point now, barring a complete collapse in conference play, where their nonconference wins -- especially the two after Jan. 1 -- will assure them of a quality seed in the NCAA tournament.
The types of wins the Huskies have, from a neutral site in Maui to beating Texas in Austin and at home against Tennessee, will earn them a higher seed than a team that may finish ahead of them in the final Big East standings that didn’t step out of conference after Jan 1.
Calhoun, who has to be the front-runner for Big East Coach of the Year and a contender for the national honor, couldn’t have planned this schedule any better. He’s going to do the same next season with a return to Tennessee, an early-season tournament at the Atlantis in Paradise Island, Bahamas (which was just approved by the NCAA to host an eight-team tournament) and likely one other marquee nonconference game after Jan. 1.
It’s a plan that other coaches in power six leagues should emulate, if possible.
“It gets you ready,’’ Calhoun said of preparing for the NCAA tournament. “It’s very good to get out of your league.’’