The Connecticut Huskies last won a national title in 2011 behind the play of electric guard Kemba Walker, and if they are going to repeat that feat in 2014, then it will almost certainly be because of Shabazz Napier.
Once Walker made the leap to the NBA, Napier was viewed as the guy who would follow in his footsteps. It has taken some time for Napier to get to this point, but he seems poised and ready to make a huge impact in the NCAA Tournament.
After being banned from postseason play last year, the Huskies are a popular dark-horse pick to make a run through the tourney. They certainly aren't viewed as top contenders, but having a player like Napier in the fold means that UConn has the ability to slay giants come March Madness time.
Guard play is of the utmost importance late in the season, and Napier is the type of player who is capable of taking games over in myriad ways.
With that in mind, here is a closer look at the player who will carry the hopes and dreams of Huskies fans everywhere on his shoulders during the NCAA Tournament.
Before we learn more about Napier, let's take a look at the overall bracket:
Although Napier has truly come into his own over the past couple seasons, it was immediately obvious that major accomplishments were in his future when he arrived at the University of Connecticut. As a freshman in 2010-11, Napier was named to the Big East All-Rookie Team. From that point forward, Napier's career took off like a rocket.
Had former UConn head coach Jim Calhoun gotten his way, however, Napier may have never donned a UConn uniform. According to Kevin Duffy of the Connecticut Post, the Huskies pursued Josh Selby, Brandon Knight and Cory Joseph before ultimately landing Napier:
While all of those players would have been great additions, Napier has proven to be the best due to his high level of play and longevity.
Napier can do a little bit of everything, and that was on full display when he recorded just the ninth triple-double in UConn history against Coppin State in 2011-12.
Prior to that season, Napier was named to the 2011 USA Basketball Men's University Games training camp ahead of the University Games in Shenzhen, China.
Perhaps the main hallmark of Napier's game over the past four years has been reliability. Napier rarely misses a game. In fact, he had a streak of 102 consecutive games played snapped last season, but he has bounced back and played in every game for the Huskies this year.
Napier has played at the highest level too, becoming the first player in UConn history to lead the team in scoring, assists, rebounding and steals in the same season, per UConn Men's Hoops on Twitter:
All of that certainly bodes well for Connecticut heading into the tournament.
Review and Predictions
The Huskies have adapted well to the new American Athletic Conference this season with a 12-6 regular-season record, and the underrated level of competition likely has them ready for what they're about to come up against in the NCAA Tournament.
Napier in particular has experience on the big stage, and he should be prepared for the nerve-wracking moments that are surely ahead of him.
From a statistical perspective Napier has been phenomenal this season with averages of nearly 18 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals per game. Add in a free-throw percentage of almost 88 percent and there is no question that Napier has what it takes to come through in the clutch.
Perhaps more important than anything else, though, is his growth as a leader. According to Dana O'Neil of ESPN.com, UConn head coach Kevin Ollie believes that Napier has come a very long way in that regard.
He's letting people in, he's not as guarded and that's great to see. He has a special gift and I think leaders give away their gift. Before, he kept it inside. Now he's sharing it and he's having fun, enjoying the moment. That's what it's about-- the journey, not the goal. He's letting go of the outcomes and just playing the game.
Never was his importance to the team more evident than on Senior Night as the team honored him in this special moment captured by UConn athletics photographer Stephen Slade:
Napier hasn't only been recognized by the University of Connecticut. He has gained national attention as well with five AAC Player of the Week nods, per Dom Amore of the Hartford Courant:
He is also a finalist for the prestigious Wooden Award given to college basketball's best player, and Jeff Borzello of CBSSports.com voted for Napier as part of the All-American team:
Submitted my USBWA All-American team: Doug McDermott, Jabari Parker, Russ Smith, Sean Kilpatrick, Shabazz Napier first five.— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) March 9, 2014
All of those accolades are great, but it ultimately comes down to how Napier and the Huskies fare in the NCAA Tournament.
How will UConn fare in the NCAA Tournament?
As good as Napier is, UConn has gone through plenty of peaks and valleys this season. It has big wins over teams like Memphis and Cincinnati, but it was beaten twice by SMU and smoked by a 33-point margin against Louisville.
Louisville is the type of team that the Huskies will have to conquer en route to national title, and while the potential is certainly there, it won't be easy by any stretch of the imagination.
The Huskies are somewhat lacking in terms of depth with just three players averaging double figures in scoring, so it's safe to say that every is riding on Napier. Single players have put teams on their back and willed them to success in the NCAA Tournament before, and Napier is capable of making it happen again.
Anything better than a Sweet 16 appearance or an Elite Eight run at the most feels like a stretch for the Huskies. Based on the overall makeup of the team, though, either of those results would actually be fine accomplishments.
Napier is going to be fantastic in the NCAA Tournament and NBA scouts are going to take notice, but he simply won't be able to do it all on his own.
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