Maui Preview, Part 3: Connecticut edition

In a state far, far away, and yet somehow still part of this nation, UK will face Connecticut for the Maui Invitational title (10 p.m., ESPN/ Here’s three things to know/watch for out of this game.

1. Kemba Walker has been all that is man — The UCONN star carried his team to victory in both rounds of Maui, including a semifinal victory over No. 2 Michigan State in which he scored 31 points. UK head coach John Calipari said he “missed” Walker while recruiting him and didn’t realize the extent of his talent.

“Normally I see something and say, yes, he has it, and we go with it,” Calipari said on his recruiting. “I missed it in him. I told him last year, we missed it on you.”

Calipari emphasized he didn’t ignore Walker in the recruiting process. (Calipari ended up with Tyreke Evans, who was eventually selected No. 4 overall in the NBA draft after his freshman year.)

“It’s not that I passed on him, but I didn’t realize how good he really was,” Calipari said. “His (high school) coach told me, you have no idea how this kid really is. I made a mistake on him.”

The “last year” Calipari was referring to was when UK played UCONN in Madison Square Garden (which, if you remember, served as a de facto John Wall coming-out party). In that game, Walker scored 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting with six assists and two turnovers.

Walker is a much bigger part of his team’s success this year, and he looks like a much better player.

“(UCONN head coach Jim Calhoun) is putting Kemba in the best position he can put Kemba in to run that team and win games,” Calipari said.

So we know Walker will be the best individual player UK has faced this year. Brandon Knight will most likely be matched up against him. Knight led UK with 24 points in the semifinals against Washington going up against a solid Husky backcourt. I’m interested in seeing if Calipari mixes up the defense to key on Walker, and to what degree. Perhaps he shades Walker with help defense and sticks with his usual man-to-man, perhaps he throws some box-and-one in there, perhaps he traps Walker with the ball, perhaps he releases that much-talked-about but not-seen-yet “Cal Zone” at him. Or maybe he trusts his usual defense to play well enough to contain him.

2. Front court matchup — UK had tremendous play on the boards against Washington. Josh Harrellson grabbed 14 rebounds, half of which came on the offensive end, and Terrence Jones added 17. For a team that has had a rebounding issue, it was encouraging, to say the least.

UCONN counters with 6-foot-9 forward Alex Oriakhi, who scored 15 points and 17 rebounds against No. 2 Michigan State. On the year, he’s averaging 12.3 points and 12.3 rebounds, so while his performance may have been above normal for him, it showed UCONN has a more-than-capable post presence.

Whether or not UK’s big men can replicate their success down low against UCONN will be a determining factor in the outcome of this game.

3. Which Darius Miller will show up — the supposed “veteran leader” has been inconsistent so far this season for UK. The junior has averaged nine points and six rebounds this year, but those somewhat underwhelming stats aren’t the only indicators of what defines success for Miller. He hasn’t been the presence he needs to be on the floor, attacking the rim and knocking down open jumpers. He seems to drift in and out of the flow of the game on both sides of the ball. Anyone who watched the Wake Forest game last year now knows what he is capable of, and he isn’t doing that this year. So far, the only “veteran leader” on this team has been DeAndre Liggins, who is averaging 9.8 points and 2.4 floor dives per game.

Final thoughts: Will be a great chance for UK to see how they can play coming off an emotional high in a tournament setting (that is, back-to-back-to-back games). While UCONN isn’t ranked, they proved they are improved from last year. Seeing how they respond to another good team on the heels of a huge win will be good to see.

As far as how much the outcome matters, I’d say a lot short-term and not much long-term. I do think freshmen can only be benefitted from the taste of winning, that feeling of “we can do this” whenever games get close. Last year’s UK team had it after that 18-0 start. A Maui title would prove to this Cats team that they have what it takes to be in place to contend.

A loss wouldn’t be that devastating. UK has already shown some really positive things in the two games it’s played, and barring a blowout, there’s mostly good things to carry back with them to the continental U.S. They showed they can prevail even when things aren’t going right (they shot poorly from the 3-point line against Washington). A loss can be just as instructive as a win, and sometimes even more so.

But I’m sure they would be just fine with coming home with a Maui title to go with their leis.