HOUSTON -- Kemba Walker, Nolan Smith and Shelvin Mack were the three standout guards for the USA Select team in the summer, competing against the national team that was prepping for the FIBA World Championships in Turkey.
Smith went on to lead Duke to a No. 1 seed and was a strong contender for national player of the year. Walker was a headline act all season -- from dominating the Maui Invitational to hitting game-winning shots against Texas and Villanova, to orchestrating the Huskies' improbable five-games-in-five-days Big East tournament title.
But somehow Mack got lost a bit during the season. He did score 25 at Louisville, but the game was over soon after it started as the Bulldogs were crushed. Mack had a chance to steal some of the stage against Duke in New Jersey, especially with guard Kyrie Irving getting hurt in that game, but cramping kept him out of the lineup for most of the second half. And then his productivity and lack of drama were forgotten amid the Bulldogs' midseason struggles in the Horizon League.
One of his former USA teammates never forgot, though.
"I put him right up there," Walker said of Mack. "He doesn't get the recognition that myself and Nolan and Jimmer [Fredette] and us got, but his team is playing in the national championship game. What more can you say? He's a great player and he definitely deserves a lot of attention."
Mack has indeed emerged again, proving to be the player that he was a year ago in leading Butler to the national title game with Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard. He's done it again this tournament with 30 points against Pitt, 27 against Florida and 24 against VCU.
And now Walker and Mack will compete, although not guard each other, for the national championship Monday night at Reliant Stadium.
"There are a lot of similarities," Mack said of the pair. "He does a great job of making his teammates better. A few games this year, he had a chance to take the game-winning shot, but he passed it off to someone else. I do the same thing. It's just the right basketball play."
"Just his ability to make shots," Walker said of Mack. "He makes tough shots all the time that are really hard to guard. He makes shots where you're playing great defense, but he just has better offense. I definitely saw that, playing against the USA team and I think that's what makes Shelvin so good."
Both are juniors and both are at the very least mid-first-round NBA draft picks if they choose to declare by April 24.
"The game will be decided by those two guys," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who is an assistant coach on the USA national team and the director of the junior national team.
Walker played for the 2008 U-18 group that finished 4-1 and won silver in Argentina. He was the MVP, averaging 13.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and five assists a game. Walker declined to participate the next summer in New Zealand and Mack said he was Walker's replacement. And then he and Howard helped lead the Americans to the gold medal for the first time since 1991, with Mack averaging 5.9 points and 2.9 rebounds.
"They’re two different players, but the game will be decided by those two and who plays the best will win since everyone else on the two teams will cancel out," Boeheim said. "Kemba has been the best player in the country by far in the last 10 games. He did hit a dead spot in our league, but the first 10 games and the last 10 games he's been by far the most dominant player in the country.
"Mack is good, really good, and in watching Mack and Kemba the last two summers it's amazing how much they've improved," Boeheim said. "They're a great case for staying in school."
Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, who co-coached the select team with Villanova's Jay Wright, said Walker, Mack and Smith held their own against the NBA guards like Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook.
But Romar fawned over how much Mack and Walker have developed.
"If you need a big basket, Mack makes those shots," Romar said. "He has ice in his veins. Kemba is more of a guard who can do what he wants to break you down and bust you. Mack still does it but within what [Butler] is doing. Kemba is more dynamic, with more flash. Shelvin is solid in every sense of the word. Kemba is probably the player who you pay to see play and Shelvin will also be the player at the end of the day who is going to lead his team to a win, just not in as flashy a manner."
Mack and Walker have been tremendous leaders for their respective teams. Mack obviously has more help with senior Howard and outspoken guards Ronald Nored and Shawn Vanzant. Walker has had to do most of this on his own, with some locker room help from senior Donnell Beverly.
And Mack has offered up some sage advice on how to lead a team in the tournament.
"Trust what you're doing, do what you trust," Mack said. "If you can improve, have people buy in to your system, great things will happen because you all have faith in each other and you'll have a lot of success."
While Mack has more leadership help from experienced teammates, he has to do much more offensively than Walker since Connecticut has more talent surrounding its junior guard.
"There's no secret that we're here because he's carried us in a few games," said Howard. "He's approached every game the same way. He's still playing within our offense and that's the thing about it. He just makes plays and makes shots. That's what we've come to expect from him because of the work he puts in."
If it sounds familiar to what is said about Walker, then that's because it is: "We gave him a road map and he drove us tremendously," said UConn coach Jim Calhoun.
Of Mack, Calhoun said that he has gone under the radar and that he can match up with anybody and is a terrific basketball player.
The mutual admiration between Mack and Walker extends well beyond each other, to their teammates, to the respective staffs, to everyone involved in USA Basketball the past few summers.
"Let's face it, the reason Butler is winning is that they have a close-to-lottery pick again this year," Boeheim said of Mack. "With Kemba, he made as big a jump from his sophomore year to his junior year as I've ever seen. But Kemba will have to have a big game for them to win."