Ryan Boatright the Hidden Star and Ace Sidekick Behind UConn's 2014 NCAA Title

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Ryan Boatright the Hidden Star and Ace Sidekick Behind UConn's 2014 NCAA Title
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

With a head coach not four years removed from playing in the NBA and a team leader who had a front-row seat to Kemba Walker putting together one of the greatest runs in tournament history, it was almost too easy to fall in love with the No. 7 seed Connecticut Huskies as they made their way to a fourth NCAA men's basketball championship since 1999.

But for everything that was written or said about Connecticut in the past few weeks, how often do you recall hearing about Ryan Boatright?

We're not talking about "Boatright and Shabazz Napier in the backcourt" or "Boatright and DeAndre Daniels as secondary scorers." Just Boatright. Try to remember a time when someone talked about how great of a player Ryan Boatright is.

You can't. And that's a travesty.

There was plenty written about Napier. Whether we were comparing him to Walker, talking about his clutch shooting, reminiscing about his decision to stay at Connecticut amid all the turmoil and turnover, or simply marveling in his do-it-all greatness, there was was no shortage of Napier fodder.

And if people weren't talking about Napier, they were talking about the suddenly reliable and crucial play of Daniels. The 6'9" small forward with 50 three-pointers and 50 blocked shots rapidly evolved into an athletic urban legend as the tournament progressed.

If we were instead talking about underrated Huskies who could make an impact, we instantly went to the well for guys such as Niels Giffey, Lasan Kromah and Amida Brimah, knowing full well that Boatright was too good and too consistent to warrant the underrated label, but failing to ever truly talk about him as a star.

Boatright somehow got trapped in this media limbo in which we took him for granted and seemed to forget he was his own incredible entity.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Make no mistake about it, though: Boatright was the invisible hand that steered the Huskies to a title.

I referenced this statistic several times throughout the tournament, but one of the primary gauges for Connecticut's success was getting good looks for Boatright.

There were multiple games this season in which Napier scored more than 25 points and the Huskies still lost. But in games where Boatright averaged 1.3 or more points per field-goal attempt, they were 18-1. During the NCAA tournament, Boatright averaged 1.52 points per field-goal attempt, including a season-high 2.33 points per attempt in the title game against Kentucky.

Scoring is only a fraction of the story with Boatright, though.

As the secondary ball-handler, he averaged 4.2 assists per 40 minutes and registered an assist on more than 21 percent of his teammates' made field goals while he was on the court per KenPom (subscription required)an incredible percentage given Napier's propensity to simply create his own shot off the dribble.

He accomplished this impressive assist rate while averaging just 2.4 turnovers per 40 minutes, yielding an overall assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.75.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Most starting point guards aren't even that efficient with the ball. Andrew Harrison, for example, averaged 1.47 assists per turnover this season, while his brother's ratio was just 1.19.

Napier's ratio was 1.74.

But that overall offensive prowess is still only half of the story for Boatright. Over the course of the year, he averaged 1.93 steals per 40 minutes and finished the season with the same number of steals (61) as personal fouls committed.

It was very rare that he was forced to leave a game this season due to foul trouble, but we all saw how much different Connecticut's defense was without him on the court late in the first half against Kentucky on Monday night.

Connecticut held a 33-20 lead when Boatright committed his second foul with just over four minutes remaining in the first half. Rather than risking his underrated superstar getting into serious foul trouble, Kevin Ollie pulled him for the rest of the half.

In the blink of an eye, Kentucky was right back in the game.

It's no coincidence that Kentucky's dribble-drive offense suddenly started to work without Boatright on the court. The Wildcats hit two three-pointers almost immediately and forced Kromah and Terrence Samuel to each commit a costly turnover, opening the door for Kentucky to enter the half trailing by just four points.

Neither team did much scoring early in the second half, but it was two Boatright steals, two Boatright free throws (he shot 79.8 percent from the charity stripe for the season) and a beautiful assist to Giffey for an open three-pointer in the span of 69 seconds midway through the second half that nearly sealed the deal right then and there for the Huskies.

(We had to check the game log to confirm that stretch of great play for Boatright, since the only thing we actually remember from the middle of the second half was the moment that James Young's dunk nearly broke the Internet.)

Napier made most of the big shots on Monday night—same as he had done all tournament long. He more than earned the Most Outstanding Player award.

But Boatright did all the little things, per usual. The only time anyone paid him much attention, though, was when he injured his ankle late in the second half.

After the game, Boatright told reporters, "I've got a lot of heart and I wasn't coming out. We put in too much work all year for me to give up on an ankle sprain."

He toughed it out, stayed in the game and went right back into the shadows behind Napier, Daniels, Ollie and the rest of the crew.

Even on the biggest and brightest stage, he somehow managed to remain out of the limelight.

Elsa/Getty Images

He won't have that luxury next season.

Napier always had the skills to lead, but he didn't have the opportunity until Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb got out of his way.

We could be headed for a similar scenario with Boatright in 2014-15.

We'll hold off on the full-blown projections for Connecticut's chances at repeating as a national champion until we know what decisions Boatright and Daniels make about the NBA, but these Huskies could absolutely thrive again next year.

If everyone who is eligible to return does so, they could have a nine-man rotation of Boatright, Samuel, Daniels, Nolan, Brimah, Omar Calhoun (who averaged 11.1 points per game last year, but never quite got it going this year), North Carolina State-transfer Rodney Purvis and incoming recruits Daniel Hamilton and Sam Cassell Jr.

It won't be easy to replace Napier, but Boatright is ready to be the star.

As if he wasn't already one.

 

Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.

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