Shabazz Napier has guided the UConn Huskies back to the NCAA tournament appearance after being banned from postseason play a year ago. If the squad is going to make a run now upon its triumphant return to the Big Dance, Napier will have to play his best basketball yet.
The senior guard has certainly not been playing poorly, as he put the team on his back for a 26-8 season that ended with a run to the inaugural American Athletic Conference championship.
While the Huskies ultimately lost to Louisville, last year’s national champion, they did impress the committee enough to earn a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tourney.
UConn now has a date with No. 10-seeded Saint Joseph's in the round of 64, a tough matchup that could truly go either way—especially if the higher seed’s top scorer is not on his game.
For Connecticut to have any chance of advancing deep in this tournament, or even out of the second round, Napier has to avoid having one of his off-kilter performances.
Napier has been statistically great during his final Huskies season, averaging 17.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.7 steals per game. However, he is prone to having extremely poor nights shooting the ball and could just as easily sink this team as much as keep it afloat.
That much was evident during the regular season finale, when the Cardinals held Napier to just nine points on 2-of-13 shooting, including an abysmal 1-of-10 from behind the arc.
While the 6’1”, 180-pound guard did his best to impact the game in other ways, notably grabbing nine boards, it’s clear that UConn has little chance of beating quality opponents when Napier can’t get his shot to fall.
Regardless, Napier has been great much more often than he has been anything else this year. Charles Barkley had nothing but high praise for the young man, as per March Madness TV:
Barkley on @UConnMBB Shabazz Napier: “He is fantastic. He is why is team is going to be dangerous. Terrific player.”— March Madness TV (@MarchMadnessTV) March 16, 2014
He won the AAC Player of the Year Award for his accolades and Gavin Keefe of The Day in New London tweeted out a picture of Napier accepting it:
Shabazz Napier receiving his AAC player of the year trophy. pic.twitter.com/pdWrjuITT4— Gavin Keefe (@GavinKeefe) March 12, 2014
Corban Goble of Grantland described exactly why Napier is one of the best players in this tournament:
Shabazz Napier, frankly speaking, has the right stuff; as UConn’s leader, he’s crafty, smart, and versatile, and there are few people in the 2014 field you’d rather have taking the last shot. Of the 10 triple-doubles in UConn history, Napier has two (he’s the only Husky who can say that), one of which came against Yale earlier this season.
Head coach Kevin Ollie had high praise for Napier as a leader, telling ESPN's Dana O'Neill:
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.
As long as this star guard remains hungry for a second championship and finds a way to get good looks at the hoop, the Huskies will have a chance at winning it all.
How far will UConn go during the tournament?
Expect St. Joe’s to concentrate all of its efforts on stopping Napier, as UConn’s second and third options (DeAndre Daniels and Ryan Boatright), are not capable of single-handedly willing the team to a win over the Hawks.
That is much easier said than done, however, and it’s going to take some luck to keep Napier from imposing his will on this upcoming matchup. Don’t be surprised when he has a great performance and pushes UConn through to the third round.
Predicted round 2 stat line for Napier: 26 points, five rebounds, six assists, two steals. 50.0 FG%, 40.0 3PT%, 85.0 FT%.
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