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Life after Kemba: 'We've got to stay hungry'

Storrs - Shortly after Kemba Walker's press conference Tuesday afternoon, some Huskies were spotted working out in Gampel Pavilion.

Fond memories of a national championship season still fresh as spring air, UConn is already preparing for next season.

"We know how it feels to win a national championship, so why wouldn't you want another one?" sophomore Alex Oriakhi said. "Guys are already in the gym. … Nothing has really stopped because this team worked so hard and we got rewarded, so we're definitely not going to stop working."

The Huskies worked and willed their way to an improbable run to the program's third national title. Walker led the charge with his tireless work ethic, fierce determination and inspirational leadership.

Now that Walker has declared for the 2011 NBA draft, leaving behind an impressive legacy and significant void, the young Huskies are facing new challenges, including maintaining the same hunger that drove their appetite for success during this past season.

"The thing that I'd worry the most about for UConn basketball is the fact we lose any of the hunger," coach Jim Calhoun said. "It's always been something that's been here, real or unreal. Once again, I play that Don Quixote as many times as I possibly can, I'm going to go out and find some windmills someplace.

"We've got to stay hungry."

There was no shortage of hunger last spring when a disappointing season fueled UConn's fire. Walker and fellow co-captain Donnell Beverly set the tone, asking teammates to spend the summer working out on campus.

Those workouts, improved team chemistry and a change of attitude served as a launching pad.

With Walker and Beverly moving on and the Huskies basking in the glow of a national championship, this spring has an entirely different feel,

Calhoun held a lengthy team meeting Tuesday to lay the foundation for next season. While he continues to mull over his coaching future, he refuses to allow the Huskies to rest on their accomplishments.

They can start down the right path by following Walker Way.

"What you hope is right on the floor in the 116 practices that we had, that (Kemba) left by example an awful lot of ways to get it done," Calhoun said. "They've actually had a pretty good road map on how to get it done."

UConn will return seven players from its regular rotation, including four starters. Jeremy Lamb is a star-in-waiting, capping a superb freshman season with terrific postseason. He'll benefit from a full offseason of weight training and will try out for the USA Basketball 19-and-under team in June.

Calhoun was particularly impressed with Lamb's improvement as a defender, referring to him as a defensive ace for his work on Butler star Shelvin Mack in the national championship game.

Freshmen Roscoe Smith, Shabazz Napier, Tyler Olander and Niels Giffey also had significant growth spurts. Oriakhi and sophomore Jamal Coombs-McDaniel will increase their roles as contributors and leaders.

Michael Bradley, a 6-10, 235-pound forward-center, showed potential during workouts while sitting out last season as a redshirt and fellow freshman big man Enosch Wolf, who played a total of 26 minutes in seven games, will be expected to take a giant step forward.

Still, life will be different without Walker.

"We're going to have to make a big adjustment without him," Calhoun said. "We're not trying to replace Kemba Walker. We'll be a different basketball team next year because we asked him to do so much, and he obviously did."

UConn is bringing in East Aurora (Ill.) standout Ryan Boatright, who's been described as a shoot-first point guard. He shared the Mr. Basketball of Illinois honor, averaging 32 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals.

Walker is confident that UConn will continue to be successful without him.

"I'm not worried about that," Walker said. "We just finished winning a national championship and they've already started working out for next season. I already know what next season is going to be like, they're going to play extremely hard and everybody is going to want to beat them. We're the national champions. And, hopefully, we can win another one."

g.keefe@theday.com

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