As far as 4-7 matchups go, this one seemed especially lopsided. On one side you had Michigan State, the No. 2 team in the preseason poll, winners of six straight. The Spartans boasted one of college basketball’s top coaches—Tom Izzo—and biggest lineups, one featuring four players (all, finally, healthy) who could go in June’s NBA draft. On the other you had UConn. Led by a second-year head coach, the Huskies had just three weeks earlier lost a game by 33 points. UConn was flawed, lacking anyone in the post who could go elbow-to-elbow with the Spartans’ Branden Dawson or Adreian Payne. But the Huskies did have Shabazz Napier.
The six-foot-one point guard has been surprising opponents with his quick first step, his deadly pull-up jumper and his hounding defense since he arrived at UConn as a freshman back in 2010—not that’s he ever gotten much credit for it. But now, with the 2014 NCAA tournament coming to its climax, Napier has given fans every reason to pay attention. Sunday’s East Regional Final against Michigan State was no different. Shabazz Napier probably shouldn’t have been with UConn last Sunday. Nobody would have blamed him had he left the Huskies years ago.
Shabazz Napier probably shouldn’t have been with UConn last Sunday. Nobody would have blamed him had he left the Huskies years ago.
Napier’s UConn career got off to a fast start. As a freshman, he was the sixth man on the 2011 team that junior Kemba Walker willed to the national championship. Then everything started to fall apart. After the championship, the Huskies lost Walker to the NBA, but expectations were still high for the Huskies as Napier entered his sophomore season. Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun was still at the helm. High-scoring swingman Jeremy Lamb was back. Low-post anchor Alex Oriakhi was back. And also joining the team was highly-touted freshman Andre Drummond. But the Huskies underperformed. UConn dropped 11 of 17 games to close the regular season and was bounced in its NCAA tournament opener. It was time to jump ship.
It wasn’t only that the Huskies were playing poorly. The team, because of academic trouble, was banned from postseason play for the following year. Lamb left for the NBA draft. Drummond left for the NBA draft. Roscoe Smith transferred. Oriakhi transferred. And, finally, Calhoun retired. But Shabazz Napier stayed. And with Napier, the team’s leader by default, UConn posted a respectable 20-10 record, scoring wins over Michigan State, Notre Dame, and Syracuse. Meanwhile, Napier, with fewer options around him, was emerging as a deadly scorer.
His sophomore scoring average of 13.0 points per game bumped to 17.1. Even more impressive, his efficiency increased along with his scoring totals: his field goal percentage jumped from 38.9 to 44.1 percent and his three-point shooting went from 35.5 to 39.8. Napier was emerging as one of the country’s top players. But few noticed. Because of the postseason ban, the Huskies’ season came to a quiet end on March 9, three days before the lights went on at Madison Square Garden for the Big East Tournament. But one year, when the ball went up at Madison Square Garden for the NCAA East Regional Championship last Sunday, Napier got his chance in the spotlight. And those skills that Napier honed for a year while few watched were on full display. In many ways the comparison makes sense.
Both are UConn point guards, both with a flair for the dramatic, a nose for the basket, and a back for supporting the rest of the Huskies. Kemba Walker’s 2011 postseason performance is stuff of college basketball legend. That March, Walker led the Huskies on an improbable 11-game run to the Big East and NCAA championships. During that 25-day, 11-game stretch, Walker averaged 24.6 points per game, stuck a game-winner against Pittsburgh in the Big East tournament, and posted a game-high 16 points against Butler in a low scoring national championship. Three years later, Napier too has led the Huskies on a wild run through the NCAA tournament.
It started with the seventh-seeded Huskies taking down Saint Joseph’s in overtime. Two days later, Napier scored 25 points in the Huskies win over No. 2 Villanova. Then in the Sweet Sixteen, Napier followed with 19 in a win over Iowa State to set up the Huskies’ Elite Eight matchup with Michigan State. From the jump, Napier, it seemed, was trying to make up for lost time, packing a year’s worth of postseason highlights into a single game.
Less than three minutes into the matchup with the Spartans, Napier picked off a Garry Harris pass and tossed the ball ahead to Ryan Boatright for an uncontested dunk that put the Huskies up 6-2. Less than two minutes later, Napier came off a screen, caught a pass on the right wing, and drilled a three-pointer to make it 11-2. With 6:53 left in the first half and the Huskies leading 16-14, Napier unleashed a devastating left-right crossover on Keith Appling, hop stepped into the paint, and then, with 6-foot-10 Spartan forward Adreian Payne blocking his path to the basket, Napier fully extended his left arm to offer a finger roll that bounced off the backboard and into the basket. The Spartans, though, closed the half on a 9-0 run and went into halftime up 25-21. Napier responded by opening the second frame by scoring seven of UConn’s first 11 points, his two free throws with 12:38 to play knotting the score at 32-32.
Then, with just over eight minutes to play, Napier gave the Huskies their biggest lead of the half. After 6-foot-6 forward Branden Dawson switched a high ball screen, Napier recognized the mismatch and pulled Dawson out near midcourt. Everyone knew what was coming: Napier hit Dawson with a double-move, then pulled up from three feet beyond the arc. The ball hit the back of the rim and went in, and the Huskies were up by 5. Then it was 7. Payne missed a three-pointer on the other end, and Napier—the Huskies’ leading rebounder (though only 6-foot-1)—pulled down the board and pushed it ahead to Niels Giffey for a transition dunk. Six seconds was all it took for Napier to turn a Michigan State miss into two UConn points. And then came the daggers.
With 1:45 left and the Spartans within two, Napier pulled up off the bounce and stuck a jumper from the right elbow. After two Payne free throws again made it a two-point game, Napier, guarded by Appling, dribbled down the clock. With 35 ticks left, he attacked, pulling up from the top of they key. Napier elevated and drew a foul on Appling. The UConn point guard knocked down all three free throws, giving him a team-high 25 points on the night and sending the Huskies to North Texas and the Final Four.
Today, the Huskies play Florida, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed and winners of 30 straight. UConn has reason to be optimistic. Back in December, the Huskies dealt the Gators their last loss, a game that Napier’s fingerprints were all over.
“His will to win – you could just see it,” Michigan State’s Garry Harris said after the game. Once again, the odds seem stacked against UConn. On Saturday, the Huskies play Florida, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed and winners of 30 straight. UConn has reason to be optimistic. Back in December, the Huskies dealt the Gators their last loss, a game that Napier’s fingerprints were all over. In that game, Napier finished with 26 points—the final two coming at the buzzer to give the Huskies the 65-64. But this time, UConn won’t be playing in front of a home crowd. And Napier will once again have to go head-to-head with Scottie Wilbekin, the SEC Player of the Year and one of the nation’s elite perimeter defenders.
And even if UConn does pull off the upset, Napier’s future is still in question. At an undersized 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, Napier is still, for NBA scouts, a question mark. “I question his ability to finish in the NBA because of his size and his ability to create for others,” a former NBA talent evaluator remarked after UConn’s win over Michigan St. While Napier’s recent performances have certainly helped his draft stock, many still project him to go in the second round and play a backup role in the NBA.
If they’re right, UConn’s matchup with Florida today may be—and remain—the biggest game of Shabazz Napier’s basketball career, his last chance in the spotlight he’s waited so long to enter. But just as he’s been doing all March, expect Napier to make the most of it.