The cliche about great point guards is that they make the players around them better. Shabazz Napier may have reached that point in the nick of time for Connecticut’s postseason hopes now that he’s led a 77-65 win over Villanova that has the seventh-seeded Huskies in the Sweet 16.
Napier, who’s been filling up stat sheets by himself all season as the inaugural American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, needed his teammates to help him out on Saturday night. Once in each half, he was hobbled by collisions that left him with a painful bruised shin. Both times, the rest of the Huskies came through for him.
In the first half, UConn went on a 16-1 run with Napier (burdened by fouls and the shin injury) sitting out. That streak turned a burgeoning Villanova rout into a tight game. In the second half, as the Wildcats tried to mount a rally of their own, Napier got just enough help from backcourt mates Lasan Kromah and Ryan Boatright to hold off the No. 2 seed and secure the win.
Napier himself, meanwhile, was unstoppable when he was on the floor, hitting nine of his 13 field-goal tries in scoring a game-high 25 points. As usual, he threw in five rebounds, three assists and two steals to go with the scoring numbers. All that when he had to finish through what he admitted (in a postgame press conference) was "excruciating" pain in that injured leg.
With performances like Saturday’s, he’s even got a chance to challenge season-long favorite Doug McDermott in the national Player of the Year voting, which (as Trey Burke showed last year) isn’t immune to being swayed by a great March Madness showing or two.
CBS' Seth Davis weighed in on the kind of advantage Napier is providing his team these days.
This is BS. One team has Shabazz and the other doesn't. Totally unfair.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) March 23, 2014
Even so, knocking off McDermott will be a very tall order. The Creighton star has been shattering scoring records all season and putting names such as Oscar Robertson and Pete Maravich back in the news. However, if the Bluejays falter in Sunday's meeting with underdog Baylor, his mystique will take a big hit.
Even if Creighton does advance past this weekend, a Final Four trip from UConn and an earlier exit from the Bluejays might be enough to push Napier over the top.
With the pre-Sweet 16 break to heal his shin, Napier will be back at full strength for a meeting with the winner of Sunday’s Iowa State-North Carolina game. Just as importantly for UConn, his teammates will be ready to take full advantage, as he’s got the Huskies firing on all cylinders.
Boatright, his sidekick for two years, has picked up a lot of his mentor’s toughness. At 6’0”, he grabbed seven boards against the Wildcats while scoring 11 points. Kromah, a George Washington transfer, has supplemented Napier’s quick-handed defense with his own 6’6” length to the tune of four steals against Nova.
However, no Husky has benefited more from Napier’s leadership than raw talent Amida Brimah at center. The Ghanaian freshman is playing with unprecedented confidence in the last few weeks, especially when it comes to his developing offensive game.
After Brimah’s 7-of-10 shooting effort gave him 14 points in an AAC tourney loss to Louisville, opposing defenses can no longer ignore the shot-blocking ace when the Huskies have the ball. He hasn’t suffered any as a defender, either, swatting four shots against Cincinnati in the AAC tournament and one each in his first two Big Dance games.
Without Napier's individual brilliance, even the improved performances from the rest of the Huskies wouldn’t cut it in NCAA tournament competition. With him, though, this still-evolving UConn squad is looking like a legitimate Final Four threat despite its ugly seeding.
And, if Napier gets to cut down the nets at Madison Square Garden—a venue where he's had his share of success—he'll be celebrating more than a trip to Arlington. In all probability, he'll be poised to become UConn's first-ever male winner of the Wooden Award.