Shabazz Napier isn’t exactly a novice when it comes to NCAA tournament heroics. Still, the Huskies’ senior floor leader—who keyed an 89-81 overtime win over 10th-seeded Saint Joseph’s to open UConn’s NCAA tournament on Thursday—is getting a different perspective this time around.
Three years ago, freshman Napier was an elite reserve behind Kemba Walker, the scintillating point guard who led the Huskies (by sheer force of will, at times) to the 2011 national title. Now, UConn is Napier’s team, and it was his 24-point, eight-rebound, six-assist night that put them in the third round despite a valiant effort from the Hawks.
St. Joe’s jumped out to a five-point halftime lead behind its own senior star, Langston Galloway (25 points on 8-of-13 from the field), but the Huskies battled back with 11-of-24 three-point shooting. UConn tied it with 39 seconds to go in regulation on a clutch three-point play from Amida Brimah, then forced a Galloway shot-clock violation to set up overtime.
Technically, UConn did get one desperation shot before the extra session, but ESPN's John Gasaway pointed out why that didn’t work out.
In the OT, Napier scored nine of 11 Huskies points in one stretch, as UConn won a foul-shooting contest to cruise to the finish line. Still, the nail-biting end of regulation was more than a little reminiscent of the kinds of miracles Walker pulled off during his charmed 2010-11 campaign.
So, too, does the camaraderie of a squad of which Napier said (in a postgame press conference), “We had all the excuses to give up. Guys were just willing each other.”
Walker’s Huskies were among the bigger surprise champions in the last decade, so the question has to be asked: Is Napier ready to follow that example and bring another unexpected title to Storrs?
Unlike Walker, he’s starting pretty far behind the eight ball. Where the 2011 Huskies were a No. 3 seed, Napier's squad is a No. 7 that could face a No. 1 (Virginia), No. 2 (Villanova) and No. 3 (Iowa State) before it even reaches the Final Four.
Also unlike those previous champs, this year’s Huskies have some pretty serious vulnerabilities on defense. One of UConn’s virtues in 2010-11 was potent D from all five starters, but this year’s model—which just allowed the Hawks to shoot 50 percent from the floor—has undersized Ryan Boatright and slow-footed Niels Giffey for opponents to target.
A more obvious disadvantage for the current team is the comparative lack of experience behind the bench. Kevin Ollie just won his first NCAA tournament game as head coach against the Hawks, while Jim Calhoun had already earned two national championships when he guided Walker's 2010-11 run.
It's easy to overstate the importance of the head coach in general, but for a team (like either of the UConn squads in question) that's always on the edge of defeat, pulling the right sideline strings can be almost as important as making the right pass or defensive switch. Everything will have to break right for the Huskies to make a deep tournament run, and Ollie, by definition, hasn't seen or made nearly as many crucial decisions as his mentor (who was a 39-year vet by the time he cut down the nets in 2011).
On the plus side for the 2013-14 Huskies, Napier has far more offensive weapons to feed than Walker did. Giffey, Boatright, DeAndre Daniels and Lasan Kromah can all nail jump shots, a far cry from the Walker and Jeremy Lamb show in 2010-11.
However, the biggest disparity of all shows up on the glass, where Walker’s squad was ninth in the country in rebounds per game, while Napier’s is 146th. A great rebounding team can cover up for many problems elsewhere, but a mediocre one like this year’s UConn squad is a lot more vulnerable to one bad bounce at the end of a game.
Napier himself is a great substitute for the fiery Walker, but he doesn’t have the supporting cast to replicate what Walker did. He’s a serious threat to knock off Villanova in Round 3, but much beyond that is too much to ask.