UConn's Shabazz Napier has grown into top dog
Was it only three years ago that Connecticut reached college basketball's biggest stage in Texas at the end of a magical NCAA Tournament run led by an inspirational point guard? The parallels to this season are inescapable, but when Shabazz Napier was asked to contrast the two experiences Sunday, he said, "We had Kemba Walker, the biggest difference."
Where others see an eerie similarity, Napier prefers to keep that comparison at arm's length, as if resisting the notion he's worthy of following his mentor's footsteps to a national title when the Huskies go up against Kentucky Monday night at AT&T Stadium.
Three years ago, Napier was a freshman apprentice observing Walker's every move as UConn nipped Kentucky by a point in the semifinals. Entering the championship game against Butler at Houston's Reliant Stadium, Napier recalled, "I let the moment get to me. I was just so ecstatic. A lot of guys put me in my place. They said we're here to win it.
"I had a big role playing that defensive pest and get the ball to Kemba. It was just a fun ride. Now we're back, and I understand this is my last game. I can't let the moment get to me."
Since that victory over Butler, Napier has negotiated the lows that followed in a difficult sophomore year, stuck it out through a coaching change from Jim Calhoun to Kevin Ollie and UConn's academic-related probation last season and persevered to reach this improbable pinnacle.
Explaining his relationship with Ollie, whom he describes as a "father figure," Napier said, "I was a sophomore, and I was crying in his arms because I was upset the way I was playing . . . Learning from Donnell Beverly and Kemba Walker, I thought I was going to be a good leader, but I wasn't able to."
Better days arrived this season at UConn as Napier earned first-team All-American honors, but few expected the seventh-seeded Huskies to be playing on the final night of the season. Now Walker's protégé is providing mature leadership and great all-around play, averaging 19.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.4 steals in five tournament games.
Napier said his mother, Carmen Velasquez, and Walker's mom are best friends, and his relationship with Kemba only has grown stronger. "I understand all the comparisons and things that I'm doing in the sense of similar features," Napier said. "I guess it's supposed to be like that. I watched him play my freshman year, and I watched him play in the NBA. I'd be stupid not to try to emulate the stuff he does.
"A lot of comparisons are going to be thrown around. I'm not going to shy away from it. But at the end of the day, I'm not him. I want to do what he did and win the championship, but we're walking our own path. We all want to get to the same promised land."
Walker led UConn in scoring in every tournament game in 2011, but Napier sensed in Saturday night's semifinal win over No. 1-ranked Florida that forward DeAndre Daniels had a hot shooting hand. So he pulled back and concentrated on defense, taking only six shots and scoring 12 points.
"I didn't want to rush it," Napier said. "I didn't want to take shots that weren't a quality shot for my team. I've got to be aggressive, but sometimes the game doesn't want me to be aggressive. If the game tells me to score points, I'm going to score points. If not, I don't need to be the guy saying he was the man. I'm nothing without my teammates."
Napier's teammates know better. Now they look to Shabazz Napier, the biggest difference for them in every game.