Why Shabazz Napier Is the Unstoppable Force of the 2014 Final Four

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Why Shabazz Napier Is the Unstoppable Force of the 2014 Final Four
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DALLAS — Last Sunday with Connecticut clinging to a two-point lead late against Michigan State, Branden Dawson got caught in a switch on Connecticut point guard Shabazz Napier.

Dawson is one of the most gifted defenders in college basketball with the quickness of a guard and the length, at 6'6", of a pro wing. He's like a mini LeBron James on the defensive end.

Most guards in this situation would pass the ball away and wait for a more favorable matchup, but Napier started rocking back and forth like a kid on the playground with something to prove.

Finally with the shot clock winding down, Napier put the ball in his right hand with his feet spread like he was about to cross over and make his move. Only instead, with his feet still spread, Napier unloaded a jumper from 23 feet that went through with four seconds left on the shot clock.

It was one of multiple daggers Napier put in the Spartans, and one of many shots he has hit in this NCAA tournament to garner the ultimate praise.

Gretchen Ertl

"I think right now he's pulling what a Kemba Walker did," says Memphis coach Josh Pastner, who got beat three times this season by Napier. "The bottom line is the guy can lead them to win the whole thing. He's that good."

The expectation this week at the Final Four is that Florida is the best team, and Billy Donovan will get to celebrate his third title.

That's the story that we're all ready to tell. Donovan and his team-first seniors finally pushed through after three straight Elite Eights to win the title they deserved.

But Donovan doesn't have the best player in Dallas. Kevin Ollie does. And the memory of what Walker did just three years ago is fresh enough that it's in everyone's head that Napier could do the same.

The numbers, in fact, are almost identical from what Walker did on his title run when Napier was a freshman. The current Charlotte Bobcats guard averaged 23.5 points in six tourney games that year; Napier is averaging 23.3 through four games. Walker shot 89.7 percent at the line; Napier is shooting 92.6 percent.

More so than the gaudy numbers, it was the stone-cold killer that Walker was on the court. It didn't matter the game plan or the defense, he was going to rip your heart out with shots that no one could defend.

And here's what no one is saying, but I'll go ahead and put it out there: Napier is harder to guard and a better shot-maker.

If you don't believe that, simply look at some advanced numbers that tell the story.

In Walker's senior season, he shot 35.8 percent off the dribble and an adjusted percentage (factoring in three-pointers) of 38 percent. On the same shots, Napier shoots 39.6 percent and 48.6 percent adjusted, according to Synergy Sports Technology (subscription required).

Jessica Hill

Up and down the board, you can put their numbers side by side and Napier is the more efficient scorer in nearly every different play type. Walker just took a few more shots.

That's the difference with Walker. He was always in attack mode and that made defenders extremely uncomfortable because you could not relax. 

Napier has his own way of keeping defenses on their heels, often sitting back like a snake examining his prey before he strikes.

"He's really smart," Donovan said on Thursday. "He knows when to go, when to pass. I think he understands the length and time of a game. He's played a lot of minutes over his career. He's been in big events and big venues."

The Gators experienced the power of Napier on Dec. 2, which just so happens to be the last time they lost. On that night, Florida led by a point in the final seconds when the ball landed in Napier's hands and he buried a buzzer-beater.

Jessica Hill

Scottie Wilbekin usually makes whatever player he's guarding a non-factor. Napier lit him up for 26 points. 

That's why Donovan is scheming this week to try to find the solution. He should talk to UConn walk-on guard Tor Watts. He's the poor guy who has to guard Napier every day in practice, and he's still searching for the answer. 

Last year, Ollie wouldn't let the Huskies leave practice one day until Watts got a stop. 

"I think it took me at least 25 minutes," Watts said. "He might have hit 30 shots in a row. It was embarrassing at first, but you look it, it's Shabazz. That's what he does."

Earlier this season, Watts got to be on the other side of it. He was on Napier's team during a four-on-four drill and you didn't get on offense until you got a stop. Napier spent a few more possessions on defense than he would have liked. 

"So Bazz got mad and he said we're going to keep them in for the rest of practice, and he literally did not miss a shot," Watts said. "We were there for about 30 minutes with him just scoring." 

As Napier has shown in the biggest moments, it doesn't matter the stakes. He's leaving the court on his terms.

The Gators are the best team in the country, but this might be their greatest challenge. After Donovan praised Napier, he went into a collection of thoughts that took us into his head this week as he tries to prepare for the UConn guard. It's a convoluted exercise. 

Bill Wippert

"I also think that Kevin really puts him in some very, very unique situations that he can do the things that he does," Donovan said. "Because he can beat you with drives, he can beat you with shots, he can beat you from behind the line and he can also beat you passing the ball.

"I think with the way UConn runs their offense and the situations Kevin's put them in, it makes it even that much more difficult dealing with him. Because you can run and just go trap him, but he's going to go find one of those guys, and you're going to leave someone open for a three. You can try to cover the three and someone's going to be rolling to the basket."

This is the NBA influence in Ollie's system, as he was trained in a world where mismatches are like gold, and he's hit the jackpot with Napier.

Pastner knows. He witnessed Napier go off for a career-high 34 points against the Tigers at UConn and there wasn't a thing the coach could do about it. 

"We played great defense on him up there and the guy didn't miss," Pastner said. "He hit tough shots."

That's the fear Donovan will enter Saturday with. His Gators could play great defense. They could play a great team game.

But Napier could pull a Kemba. He's that good.

 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.

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