Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
NEW YORK — Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim says Kemba Walker could play eight games in eight days if he had to.
“I guarantee it,” Boeheim said. “Eight nights in a row. Forty minutes.”
Walker won’t have to go that far.
But the UConn junior and his teammates must play an unprecedented five days in a row, culminating with Saturday night’s Big East championship game against either Louisville or Notre Dame.
“Whatever I gotta do to win, whatever I gotta do to help my team, I’m gonna do,” Walker said after putting on yet another show with 33 points, 12 rebounds, 6 steals and 5 assists in No. 9-seeded UConn’s 76-71 overtime win against No. 4 Syracuse in the Big East semifinals.
“I’m only 20, though,” Walker added when asked about the fatigue factor of five games in five days. “It’s not old.”
One day after hitting the game-winning jumper as time expired to knock off top-seeded Pittsburgh, Walker was back thrilling the capacity Garden crowd, inciting them to chants of “Kem-ba Walk-er.”
After the game, Bill Clinton huddled with Walker and his mother, Andrea, and posed for photos.
Still, even Kemba joked that he wasn’t happy to have to go to overtime after Scoop Jardine’s 3-pointer from the left side tied the game at 68 with 4.6 seconds left in regulation, forcing the overtime.
After all, it was just two years ago that Syracuse and UConn tangled for six overtimes in a Big East tournament quarterfinal before the Orange prevailed, 127-117.
“I didn’t want to go into another six-overtime, I knew that,” Walker said. “I was mad we went into the first overtime.”
“I wanted to get the win in that first overtime. I didn’t want to go into another one and another one.”
UConn coach Jim Calhoun said Boeheim shook his hand before the game and said, “I’m telling you one thing. No blankety-blank overtime tonight. We flip a coin at the end.”
Walker and freshman Jeremy Lamb scored four points apiece in the overtime, when UConn outscored Syracuse, 8-3. Syracuse went 1 for 4 from the foul line in the extra period.
Walker now has a Big East tournament-record 111 points in four games, smashing the old record of 84 set by Syracuse’s Eric Devendorf two years ago.
“I think he’s the MVP on any college basketball team in America and I’m going to keep saying that,” Calhoun said of Walker.
UConn became the third team in Big East history — and the 15th in any conference tournament — to record four wins in four days. Pittsburgh did it in 2008 to win the title and Syracuse did it in ’06 behind Gerry McNamara, now an Orange graduate assistant.
Calhoun joked that he would tell his young players like Lamb, who scored two critical baskets on floaters in the extra period, that four games in four days was no problem.
No problem at all.
“We’re going to do everything tonight to deceive, lie and do everything we can [to tell them] teams play their best after four games in a row,” Calhoun said. “It’s like in golf when you’re hitting and you’re making every putt. It’s the same kind of thing.”
Walker said the most games he ever played in a day was three or four during AAU season with the New York Gauchos.
To get through this week, the Bronx native has been relaxing in his hotel room when he’s not at the Garden.
“I just relax, lay down sometimes,” he said. “If I can’t sleep, I just play video games.”
Still, he admits to feeling like a 70-year old man some mornings.
“Definitely,” he said. “I wake up hurting. I wake up hurting. But that’s why I got my great trainer, James Doran, for. And he helped me big-time with stuff like that. I just gotta keep drinking my fluids and putting the right things in my body.”
Let’s face it. These are uncharted waters for Walker and the Huskies. None of them has ever competed in five games in five days.
No college player has.
Heck, to win the NCAA tournament you need to win six games. But of course that’s stretched over a three-week period.
Because of the condensed nature of the Big East tournament — and because the league is so deep, with 11 teams projected to make the NCAAs — some folks say it’s harder to win the Big East tournament than the NCAA tournament.
“I agree,” Walker said. “It’s different basketball. It’s very physical. If you’re not a part of this league, you wouldn’t know.”
Some may say that this run will fatigue UConn and hurt them next week when the Big Dance begins.
But a win in the final could also help move UConn up in the NCAA seedings.
“They’re in that 4-5 range,” Jerry Palm of CollegeRPI.com said of UConn and Louisville. “If one of them were to step up and maybe win the tournament then they could possibly step up and be a 3 [seed]. And that’s good
“The difference between being a 3 and a 4 is that you don’t run into a 1 sooner. So if they could pull that off, that would be a good thing.”
Walker isn’t thinking too far ahead.
He wants to win UConn’s first Big East championship since 2004 now.
And if that means winning five games in five days, so be it.
“It’s the best tournament in the world,” he said of the Big East tournament. “It’s the best collegiate tournament in the world, and it’s big-time. I think it would definitely help us in the seedings for the NCAA tournament.
“So we want to win, we’re not going to play no games to lose. We want to go out and win. Everybody say we’re going to lose some of these games, but we’re just shocking the world.”
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Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.