Kemba Walker’s 10-year-old miracle still resonates

Ten years have passed since guard Kemba Walker led the UConn Huskies on a wild ride to the Big East Conference title and, ultimately, to the NCAA title.

It was perhaps the only time in recent memory that a school’s performance in a major conference tournament ever equaled that of an ensuing ride at the national level in terms of how fans would come to view the accomplishment years after the fact.

What the Huskies did at Madison Square Garden in 2011 still seems unthinkable. They won five game in five days to win the Big East crown.

All that comes to mind for me today with the Conference USA championships opening in Frisco.

For Southern Miss and Rice, playing today in the preliminary round for the right to advance into the main bracket, Walker’s achievement stands as a testament that anything can happen in a tournament setting.

Even if you have to win as many as five games in five days to reach the NCAA’s Big Dance.

For seven other C-USA teams who start play on Wednesday, they’ll need to win four in four days. That eight-team group includes the UTSA Roadrunners, who open the tournament Wednesday afternoon against Charlotte.

Finally, for the select four with byes into Thursday’s quarterfinals, the dream can be secured with three wins in three days.

From a historical perspective, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, UAB Blazers, Louisiana Tech Bulldogs and Old Dominion Monarchs would seem to hold a massive advantage over the others.

In 24 previous C-USA tournaments — last year’s wasn’t completed because of the pandemic — the conference has never crowned a champion that won five games in five days, and only two previous tournaments in years past have been structured in such a way, with five rounds. In all the others, only four champions have been crowned after winning four games in four days.

According to the brackets, only the 1997 Marquette Golden Eagles, the 1999 Charlotte 49ers, the 2000 Saint Louis Billikens and the 2010 Houston Cougars have danced through the C-USA tournament with an improbable 4-0 record during a 96-hour period. To me, it was surprising to find that while going through the records.

Going into my research, I really didn’t think I’d find more than one or two.

As a long-time hoops fan who probably has spent far too much time in my life following March Madness, I could only think of one other situation when a team pulled off such a head-slapping achievement.

Going in, I remembered that the 2006 Syracuse Orange did the four-in-four thing at another memorable Big East tournament.

But I had forgotten the account of the team’s championship celebration, when one reporter pointed out that Syracuse star Gerry McNamara had made a bigger splash in the New York tabloids that week than even Paris Hilton.

I asked UTSA coach Steve Henson on a recent zoom conference if he had a favorite memory of a team that had won four games in a conference tournament, and he didn’t know of one right off the top of his head.

“When we were coaching at UNLV, I think we probably just won three in a row in two different years,” he said. “I don’t think it was a four-game situation. Those memories are pretty special. There was a stretch in the Mountain West where New Mexico was always good. San Diego State was always good. Two years in particular, us and BYU were the two best teams.

“BYU won the regular season two years in a row. Then we knocked them off in the conference tournament two years in a row. That was pretty special. Unbelievable atmosphere.

“In the Mountain West, there could not have two semifinal games … with a better atmosphere that we had in those games at the Thomas and Mack Center (in Las Vegas). San Diego State traveled well. BYU traveled well. New Mexico traveled well. Atmosphere was unbelievable … For us to beat the regular-season champions two years in a row, was pretty special.

“To win four in a row is a little bit tougher, but that’s our task.”

Hey. it is a tall task. But it’s not as rare as you might think. As a matter of fact, the Appalachian State Mountaineers on Monday night completed a four-wins-in- four-days romp through the Sun Belt Conference tournament.

Michigan did it in 2017 in the Big Ten tournament in Washington D.C. after its charter air craft, en route to the event, slid off the runway and crashed. At the time, Wolverines coach John Beilein said his players were “a little banged up and shook up” after the experience, but then they went on to beat Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin on consecutive days.

Austin Peay did it in 2016 in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Houston, with Tom Penders in his final year as a Division I head coach, was the last team in Conference USA to pull it off. In 2010, with a team led by Aubrey Coleman, Kelvin Lewis, Maurice McNeil and San Antonio’s Adam Brown, Houston claimed the C-USA crown as the No. 7 seed. The Cougars knocked off East Carolina, Memphis, Southern Miss and, finally, top-seeded UTEP in one remarkable week in Tulsa.

UTSA, in turn, has won three in three days but never four. The Roadrunners did the three-in-three thing in 1988 in Daytona Beach, Fla., when they claimed their first NCAA berth out of the old Trans America Athletic Conference. They won two games in 1999, three in 2004 and three in 2011 in their other three conference title conquests. But, never in a three-day period as they did under the late Ken Burmeister in ’88.

So, boiling it all down, the Roadrunners will face an uphill challenge this week rivaling a drive up the winding roads on Pike’s Peak.

At the same time, they do have a couple of dangerous offensive threats in Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace. They do have some confidence instilled by a 9-2 record over their last 11 games. And they did win some of those games with defense that seems much-more suited to conference tournament-style play than what fans may have seen last November and December.

All that’s missing, if you look at it from a historical perspective, is magic.

It’s the magic that some fans in New York are still talking about 10 years after Walker scored 130 points (combined) on five opponents, turning his five-day stay in the city into the stuff of basketball legend.

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