Napier trying to shed Walker’s shadow
FILE - In this Feb. 15, 2014 file photo, Connecticut's Shabazz Napier, left, drives to the basket as Memphis' Shaq Goodwin defends during the second half an NCAA college basketball game in Hartford, Conn. Napier was selected to The Associated Press All-America team, released Monday, March 31, 2014. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, FIle)
Connecticut's Shabazz Napier responds to a question following an NCAA college basketball team workout Tuesday, April 1, 2014, in Storrs, Conn. UConn will be playing Florida in the Final Four on Saturday in Dallas. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Connecticut's Shabazz Napier smiles after cutting the net after a regional final against Michigan State in the NCAA college basketball tournament Sunday, March 30, 2014, in New York. Connecticut won the game 60-54. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Connecticut's Shabazz Napier holds the championship trophy after a regional final against Michigan State in the NCAA college basketball tournament Sunday, March 30, 2014, in New York. Connecticut won the game 60-54. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
ARLINGTON, Texas — Shabazz Napier can shoot, drive and dish, hit big shots, pick off passes, carry a team down the stretch of a game and a season.
Sounds an awful lot like another recent Connecticut star: Kemba Walker.
Playing with the poise and confidence he learned from his mentor three years ago, Napier has followed Walker’s footsteps but created his own path while leading the Huskies back to the Final Four.
“He’s really smart, knows when to go, when to pass,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said Thursday from Cowboys Stadium. “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.”
Walker had one of the great runs in college basketball history, leading the Huskies through five wins in five days in the Big East tournament and a carry-them-on-my-back trip through the NCAA tournament.
On that team was a confident freshman point guard who was still willing to ask questions, taking his opportunities when they arose, learning what he didn’t know from Walker and the other Huskies. Napier played in every game that season, averaging 23 minutes, 7.8 points and three assists.
Flash forward three years and Napier has another title within his sights.
UConn must first get through Florida (36-2), the tournament’s top overall seed, in one national semifinal Saturday night at Cowboys Stadium.
After that, the Huskies (30-8) would have to beat Kentucky or Wisconsin on Monday night to win championship No. 4.
Finish it off and Napier will secure a spot in history — alone.
“I just want to go out there, like I always say, and be myself,” Napier said. “At the end of the day, he (Walker) took that team to a national championship and I want to do the same. But, I’m going to do it a different pathway and I’m going to be myself.”
That the path is similar to Walker’s has led to the comparisons.
Walker was — well, still is — a slender point guard who was part scorer, part facilitator, beyond-his-size rebounder, defensive menace, clutch shooter.
The description fits Napier well.
A 6-foot-1 senior, he could have left the program after UConn was barred from the NCAA tournament last season for failing to meet academic standards. He stuck it out instead and returned to lead UConn with 18.1 points per game, 5.9 rebounds (tied with DeAndre Daniels), 4.9 assists and 1.7 steals.
Clutch? Napier hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer to beat Florida — the Gators’ last loss before running off 30 straight wins — and scored nine of his 24 points in UConn’s overtime victory over Saint Joseph’s in the Huskies’ NCAA tournament opener.
Napier also is an 86 percent free-throw shooter and at his best when the game is on the line, making all nine of his attempts — three huge ones in the closing seconds — in UConn’s Final Four-earning win over Michigan State in the East Regional final.
Napier is arguably the best player among these Final Four teams.
“Shabazz is a great player, a great leader and that’s the one thing I see: he’s an extension of me,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “I asked him to do a lot. Not only be a facilitator, but score out of necessity when we get down to the thick of the thing, the thick of a moment when he needs to make a play.”
That’s where Napier may be the most like his mentor.
During Walker’s junior season, he hoisted the Huskies on his back, scoring an almost-unthinkable 130 points during the five days of the Big East tournament, and kept it going by practically willing UConn through the NCAA tournament.
Napier has taken the Huskies through a similar run. He bounced back from a missed buzzer beater in regulation to wear out Saint Joseph’s in overtime; scored 25 against Villanova; had 19 points, five rebounds and five assists in a win over Iowa State; sent the Huskies to the Final Four with a 25-6-4 performance that included three huge free throws with 30 seconds left against the Spartans.
“Everybody says I want five guys in double figures,” said former UConn Jim Calhoun, who recruited Napier to Storrs. “The best guy should take the most shots and that’s what we do. You see a guy not having quite a sure shot, give it to Shabazz, let him make a play.”
Just like Kemba.