- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject, the first in this year's series, is your national champion Connecticut Huskies.
Connecticut's national title remains borderline mind-blowing. The ninth-seed in the Big East tournament, one that as late as early March looked like an inexperienced group utterly dependent on Kemba Walker for pretty much everything -- scoring, perimeter defending, shot creation, and so on -- suddenly and inexplicably jells at just the right time, grinding out wins not just thanks to Walker's brilliance, but thanks to the improved play of Shabazz Napier, the rebounding and interior defense of Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith, and -- more than anything -- the emergence of wingman Jeremy Lamb. (Butler's horrid shooting in the title game didn't hurt, either.)
A few weeks later, bam (!), national champs. It wasn't the most unlikely outcome of the 2011 NCAA tournament -- Butler and VCU's miracle runs saw to that -- but it ranks among them.
The question now, of course, is whether UConn can maintain its national resurgence with Walker in a Charlotte Bobcats uniform. Months removed from Midnight Madness, the answer seems to be a tentative yes. But just as Connecticut's run was fueled by Lamb's postseason emergence, its life in the post-Kemba era will hinge on just how much of Lamb's improvement was real and how much was well-timed. If you believe the former, the Huskies are a national title contender. If you believe the latter, they may struggle at times in the coming season. It's not exactly that simple, but it's close.
A deeper dive into Lamb's work in the NCAA tournament reveals as much. Here's the good news: When Lamb caught the ball in space, he was downright unstoppable. The freshman scored 35 points on the 17 spot-up opportunities he received in the tournament, a 2.059 points per possession mark that made him among the most lethal spot-up players in the country. But when Lamb was forced to take the ball off screen plays, his points per possession plummeted to 0.74. He didn't fare much better on isolation plays (0.78 ppp) either.
The trend in the tournament, which only magnified Lamb's production from the rest of the Huskies' season, was inescapable: When he was open outside, he was fantastic. When he was forced to create on his own, well, he wasn't.
The implications for UConn can't be understated. Lamb will now be the Huskies' primary scoring option. But with Walker no longer there to draw opposing teams' defensive rotation, will he get as many plum looks from the perimeter? Will he expand his game to include more of a reliable rim attack? (Lamb's play in the FIBA U-19 World Championships this summer was by all accounts fantastic, leading many observers to believe his turn as a star is forthcoming sooner rather than later.) Will Napier, the incoming on-ball Walker stand-in, be able to create as many defensive rotations as the player he's replacing? Will teams have to double Oriakhi in the post? Will freshman DeAndre Daniels present a third or fourth scoring presence to take yet more pressure off the aforementioned trio?
One or all of those things probably needs to happen for Lamb, and therefore Connecticut, to maintain March's pace. It's easy to envision a more balanced, all-around Huskies bunch with Walker away. But for that to happen, Lamb won't merely be able to be a spot-up shooter. He'll have to do much more with his game, and there will be little time for a learning curve.
Let's face it: There's no replacing Kemba Walker. Approximating his effect on the game through multi-faceted, still-improving talents like Lamb? That's actually quite doable. We'll see if the Huskies -- and Jeremy Lamb specifically -- are up to the task.