Can Shabazz Napier Pull off a Kemba Walker and Lead UConn to NCAA Tourney Glory?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 28, 2014

Mar 15, 2014; Memphis, TN, USA; Connecticut Huskies head coach Kevin Ollie talks to guard Shabazz Napier (13) during the first half against the Louisville Cardinals in final of the American Athletic Conference college basketball tournament at FedEx Forum. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

It's a comparison we have been flippantly making since early November, but now it's time to seriously ponder if Shabazz Napier can complete the transformation into Kemba Walker and carry Connecticut to a national championship.

In some ways, it's already an impossible correlation to make.

Half of the magic of Connecticut's 2011 run took place before the NCAA tournament even began.

As the No. 9 seed in the Big East tournament, the Huskies were almost, sort of, kind of on the bubble before incredibly winning five games in five days to get the Big East's automatic bid. Walker averaged 26.0 points per game during that memorable week at Madison Square Garden.

This year's team and its fearless leader didn't do anything quite so noteworthy in the AAC tournament. Connecticut did get to the championship game by beating Memphis and Cincinnati, but the Huskies went just 2-1 in the AAC tournament. Napier didn't even match his season totals in those games, averaging just 14.0 points per contest.

Outside of those conference tournaments, though, Napier has already been Walker's doppelganger.

2014 Shabazz Napier vs. 2011 Kemba Walker
ESPN Statistics
Napier vs. Walker through 2 NCAA tournament games
ESPN Statistics

At the start of the Sweet 16, Napier was already ranked No. 1 in our real-time player rankings. Bleacher Report's C.J. Moore had Napier on his All-Tournament team after the round of 32.

After Saturday's win over Villanova, Connecticut head coach Kevin Ollie told reporters, "(Napier) led us to victory. He was just unbelievable in that second half: 21 points, crucial threes, dagger threes. He was 30 feet out and he was making them."

Over the course of their respective seasons, Walker scored more than Napierand, in a coincidental similarity, Connecticut averaged 72.4 points per game during both the 2010-11 and 2013-14 seasonsbut Napier has been a more accurate and efficient shooter.

Napier has also been slightly more willing to rely on his supporting cast, averaging 4.9 assists per game. Walker had more assists in the first two games of the 2011 tournament, but he was gunning for a triple-double in Connecticut's first game. The Huskies beat Bucknell by 29 points, and Walker had a line of 18 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds.

Speaking of supporting casts, Napier certainly appears to have a better one than the team Walker carried to the title.

The Batmen did have similar Robins, though.

In the 2011 backcourt, Walker had Jeremy Lamb to help carry the load. And Lamb really came to play in the tournament, averaging 16.2 points per game.

Flash forward to 2014, where Napier has Ryan Boatright playing second fiddle and averaging 14 points per game thus far in the tournament.

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 02:  Kemba Walker #15 and Shabazz Napier #13 of the Connecticut Huskies talk on the court against the Kentucky Wildcats during the National Semifinal game of the 2011 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship at Reliant Stadium on
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Beyond that, however, Walker didn't have much. Alex Oriakhi was a solid post presence, but you never would have confused him with Emeka Okafor. After Oriakhi, the next-highest scorer on Walker's team was some three-point gunner named Shabazz Napier.

Napier, on the other hand, has an excellent inside-outside player in DeAndre Daniels, one of the most accurate three-point shooters in the country in Niels Giffey and one of the best shot-blockers in Amida Brimah.

Throw in Lasan Kromah's defensive pressure and Phillip Nolan's ability to provide quality frontcourt depth off the bench, and it's hard to believe this team played poorly enough to warrant a No. 7 seed.

Can Napier discover that extra "Walker" gear to duplicate what he did by scoring 36 points in the Sweet 16?

Better yet, does he even need to?

There have been a lot of features flying around the web about Napier. Paul Myerberg of USA Today wrote a brief piece Thursday night about Napier being the leader of the Huskies. Greg Logan of Newsday paints Friday night's battle with Iowa State as a duel between Napier and DeAndre Kane.

BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 20:  DeAndre Daniels #2 celebrates with Shabazz Napier #13 of the Connecticut Huskies after defeating the Saint Joseph's Hawks 89-81 in the second round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the First Niagara Center on March
Elsa/Getty Images

But Connecticut is a more well-rounded team than it was in 2011, and more so than teams like Cincinnati, Creighton and San Diego State were this year. Those teams had virtually no hope of winning games when their leading scorer failed to at least match his season average. But the Huskies have been capable of winning if Napier scores fewer than 20 points.

Of course, they are about to play a very tough opponent. 

That is perhaps the biggest difference between the tournament runs of Napier and Walker.

In 2011, the Huskies only played one tournament game against a team seeded better than No. 4—in the Sweet 16 against No. 2 seed San Diego State. Thanks to No. 5 Arizona upsetting No. 1 Duke in Connecticut's region and a Final Four made up of No. 4 Kentucky, No. 8 Butler and No. 11 VCU, Connecticut managed to avoid playing against a single No. 1 seed.

This year, Connecticut may very well need to go through three No. 1 seeds to win it all. And that doesn't even take into consideration the win Napier's crew already has over No. 2 Villanova and their upcoming game against No. 3 Iowa State.

With the stats that Napier has put up this season, he has already virtually matched Walker's heroics.

So, let's stop asking if Napier can become the next Kemba Walker. Because if Napier carries this Connecticut team to a national championship against that schedule, it'll be even more impressive than what Walker accomplished. 

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


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