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.
Walker, Mack to Put Friendship Aside in NCAA Final
HOUSTON — Kemba Walker and Shelvin Mack began to develop a bond while playing together last summer on the college select team against Team USA.
They exchanged texts throughout this college season and when Mack and Butler upended No. 1 seed Pittsburgh in the NCAA Tournament at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., March 19, Walker shared a message with the Butler guard.
“He kind of got on me when we fouled Pittsburgh at the end,” Mack said Sunday, referring to the final 2.5 seconds of the game won by the Bulldogs, 71-70. “You know, he don’t really like Pittsburgh. He didn’t want them to win.”
Said Walker: “I was happy [Butler won], not a lot. You know, Pitt is one of the best teams in the country. I just told him, ‘Go win.’ It was a tough win, especially the way the game went.”
Butler (28-9) has already knocked off one Big East power in this tournament, and on Monday night they will take aim at another when they meet Walker and UConn (31-9) in the national championship.
“When the brackets came out and we know we were on opposite sides, it was kind of hard to imagine playing each other,” Mack said of Walker. “When we [were] in Washington, D.C., we just exchanged texts and I saw him a few times in the arena wishing him good luck.”
UNDER-RECRUITED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL
Although both the 6-3 Mack and the 6-1 Walker are stars of their respective teams, both were under-recruited out of high school.
Mack received interest from some Big East and Big Ten schools and even Kentucky, his home-state team, showed some interest, according to Paul Biandcardi of ESPN.com.
But in the end he chose Butler because of coach Brad Stevens’ message about team unity and “The Butler Way.” Current Ohio State assistant Brandon Miller was the lead recruiter.
“Shelvin’s recruitment was one where we saw him play a couple times in the summer prior to his senior year,” Stevens said. “He was playing with a really, really good summer league team or summer team. We continued recruiting him on into the fall. He committed to us in January during [his] senior year.
“We just thought really highly of Shelvin. We thought highly of him not only as a basketball player. But like all these guys, everybody you talk to in the school loved him. Everybody you talked to around the community had nothing but praise for the way he conducted himself.”
Walker was similarly under-recruited out of Rice High School in The Bronx. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin was on the case first, telling then-Rice coach Moe Hicks he wanted one of his players to help build his nascent program.
But after it became clear to UConn coach Jim Calhoun that he wasn’t going to get Brandon Jennings, the staff targeted Walker as its point guard in the post-A.J. Price era.
“It was close but I really wanted to come to UConn my entire life,” Walker said in Washington, D.C. “I was waiting for the opportunity and it came.”
SELECT TEAM TEAMMATES
Both Walker and Mack were invited last summer to play for the college select team coached by Villanova’s Jay Wright.
There they had an opportunity to test themselves against NBA guards day in and day out during stops in Las Vegas and New York.
“Kemba and Shelden were defended fullcourt relentlessly by [Russell] Westbrook, [Derrick] Rose, [Kevin] Durant, [Chauncey] Billups and [Andre] Iguodala for more than two weeks this summer,” Wright said by text. “They were poised, confident and held their own. It was incredibly impressive to watch.”
On his way to the Final Four, Mack watched some videos he had taken last summer of himself, Walker and Duke’s Nolan Smith “just hanging out and having a good time,” Mack said.
“But other than that we had a blast this tournament hanging out together,” he added.
ONLY ONE WINNER
Now the two former select team teammates have guided their programs to within one victory of the college basketball mountaintop.
Mack scored 10 straight Butler points during one critical second-half stretch in the national semifinal against VCU and finished with 24 points on 8 of 11 shooting, including 5 of 6 from deep.
For the season, he’s averaging 16.1 points, 4.4 reboundsand 3.5 assists.
“At 6-3, he can flat out play,” Calhoun said of Mack. “He can match up with anybody. He’s a terrific, terrific basketball player.”
Walker, meanwhile, had 18 points and seven assist in the semifinal win over Kentucky, meaning he accounted for 32 of UConn’s 56 points, or 65 percent.
For the season, he has averaged 23.7 points and 4.6 assists, accounting for 45 percent of the Huskies’ points this season.
“I don’t think you can ever defend a guy as good as Kemba Walker with one
guy,” Stevens said. “I don’t think it’s a sound way of going about it.”
As great as Walker is with the ball in his hands as a playmaker, he may be still more dangerous off the ball when freshman Shabazz Napier is the point guard.
“The thing that UConn doesn’t get enough credit for, everybody talks about how good those guards are with the ball, I think they’re great cutters,” Stevens said. “I think when they put [Walker] off the ball with Napier on the one, he’s as difficult if not more difficult.
“But we have played teams that have singular stars, but this isn’t a team that has just a singular star. This is a team that has a lot of really good players and possibly a couple of pros around a for-sure pro.”
Asked if Walker’s season was the greatest in UConn history, Calhoun said: “He’s going to be just Kemba now. That’s important. If it’s just Ray, Caron, if Caron’s around, Caron, Rip I don’t know, Mek, Ben, it’s just Kemba now. That’s a great status to have.
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.