Huskies' first priority: Stop Wall

jtipton@herald-leader.comDecember 9, 2009 

Through the first month of the season, there's a growing consensus about Kentucky's basketball team: As John Wall goes, so goes Kentucky.

It's a premise adopted by Connecticut, which plays UK in Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.

"When you give the guy the ball that much, then I think you're making a statement: that you want him to determine the outcome of the game," UConn Coach Jim Calhoun said on a teleconference Tuesday.

But such dependence clashes like polka dots with stripes given UK's emphasis on a team-first approach for its star-studded roster.

Wall seems uncomfortable with the notion.

"I really don't know what to say," he said on Tuesday. "I'm just the point guard. If I'm doing what I'm supposed to and we're winning games, that's all that matters to me."

UK Coach John Calipari recoils from the suggestion that Wall — or any player — is indispensable. Never mind that Wall leads UK in scoring (18.1 ppg), steals (18), assists (54), free throws made and attempted (42-53) and minutes (35.4 per game).

"Well, we played without him" against North Carolina on Saturday, Calipari said.

True. And with Wall sidelined or hobbled because of cramps, UK saw a 19-point lead shrink to two in a game even Calipari now says should have been lost.

"I will tell you his energy is contagious, if you want it to be," Calipari conceded. "If you choose to look at him and feed off it, it's contagious."

Calipari brushed aside any concerns about Wall's health. The cramps were no factor in a strenuous practice on Monday, the coach said.

Wall also suffers from tendinitis in a knee, which Calipari dismissed as part of the bargain for players who run and romp over a long period of time.

"You learn to live with it," Calipari said, "or retire."

Wall first experienced tendinitis as a high school junior.

"I don't know where it came from," he said. "I just know it's a terrible pain. ...

"It can slow you down. Then you can't really jump like you want to, and you can't move like you want to. Pretty sore. It's like bumping knees. You get a pain that hurts real bad."

Clearly, the tendinitis has not severely affected Wall. He's been the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week the past three weeks.

To ensure that the pain does not hamper his play, Wall said he takes pre-game "icy-hot" treatments. He also wears knee pads.

If sufficiently protected, Wall acknowledged that he could decide a game single-handedly, or as much a one-man effort as basketball allows.

"I think I have the talent," he said before adding, "That's something you have to learn. You can't do it as much in college. Teams focus on you. In high school, people get out of your way. In college, they don't care who you are. They're not getting out of your way."

Connecticut will put a top priority on containing Wall.

"Stopping Wall is one," Calhoun said of his defensive priorities. "And one-A right beside, 'Don't get overwhelmed by their size.' That's my greatest fear."

The Huskies prefer that forward Stanley Robinson stay on the wing, where he is a more difficult matchup, Calhoun said.

As for Wall, Calhoun saluted him as unusually gifted.

"Anybody who has watched him play (knows) he's not a freshman," Calhoun said. "He's a great freshman."

Typically, freshmen have their ups and downs, the UConn coach said, before adding, "I put Wall somewhat out of that equation because I think he's one of those, quote, special, special players."

Calipari said he anticipated UConn trapping Wall to get him to give up the ball. Then the UK coach said he wanted to see how the Cats respond.

UConn's point guard is sophomore Kemba Walker, who leads the team in assists (40) and steals (18) while averaging 15.4 points.

Calipari lamented the mistake of not pursuing Walker, a high school star from the Bronx, as a prospect two years ago. Then coaching at Memphis, he passed after watching Walker play in one game.

Calhoun described Walker as a typical New York City point guard.

"They all go rim to rim 100 mph," the UConn coach said. "They're athletic. They're durable. They have a certain swagger.

"Kemba's an exceptional athlete. He's exceptionally quick and a very good defensive player."

Walker shoots better (55.6 percent from three-point range) than the typical NYC point guard, Calhoun said.

But, because of Wall, Walker's defense will be center stage this game.

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