Cats' backcourt battle with UConn about much more than Napier
April 7, 2014INDIANA SPORTS PAGE
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Shabazz Napier, more than any other player in this year's NCAA Tournament, has been credited with carrying his team.
The junior guard scored 23.3 points per game in leading Connecticut to the Final Four, rendering his teammates an afterthought in the eyes of many.
But as the Huskies dispatched top overall seed Florida to advance to the national championship game, Napier proved what he's known all along.
"I don't need to be the guy in front of all the billboards saying, 'He was the man,' " Napier said. "I'm nothing without my teammates. I wouldn't be in this position right now without my teammates. It's just a collective group."
A collective group that needed its leading scorer to take just six shots to take down the heavy favorite for the title.
Napier, playing at least 37 minutes for the fourth time in five tournament games, didn't force his offense against the Gators. Instead, he was content to involve his teammates and be a self-described "pest" on defense to the tune of six assists and four steals.
"I tell my team all the time I don't care about scoring," Napier said. "I don't want to go out there and score all the points. I want to go out there, rack up assists, rack up rebounds, do whatever it takes to get the win. And my teammates are just doing what they're supposed to do. They're showing everybody how great of players they are."
DeAndre Daniels has been the breakout star of the tournament for UConn (31-8), particularly after his 20-point, 10-rebound performance on Saturday, but Ryan Boatright is indispensable in the backcourt alongside Napier.
Not only is he averaging 12.1 points per game, but Boatright has also evolved into the kind of defensive presence his coach always knew he could be.
"He had to mature as a young man and a basketball player," Kevin Ollie said. "It's not all about scoring. He can impact the game in so many ways and he's starting to do that at the highest stage. He's been doing it last year, he's been doing it this year, and now everybody is seeing it."
It was impossible to miss against Florida.
Boatright and Napier combined to handcuff Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin, holding him to six points on 2-of-9 shooting and forcing him into three turnovers. They will look to duplicate the feat against Andrew and Aaron Harrison, the twin guards playing their best basketball of the season for Kentucky (29-10).
"I ain't going to reveal all my secrets, but I'm going to just try to do my best to turn them up and down the floor, to try to make them uncomfortable," Boatright said. "Just try to get up in them and be a little physical with them."
Physical play doesn't figure to bother the Harrisons too much since they have around half-a-foot on the 6-foot-1 Napier and 6-foot Boatright. Nonetheless, they have a good grasp on the challenge facing them as they look to complete a remarkable run through the NCAA Tournament at 9:10 p.m. ET on Monday.
"It's going to be tough with those two guys," Andrew Harrison said. "Probably some of the quickest guys we've run up (against) all year. And they also have a great offensive game. It's going to be a tough matchup. You try to compare them to the Louisville guards that we played against with the full-court ball pressure and stuff like that, so we just have to stay low and be prepared for the pressure."
The pressure will come on both ends of the floor.
Napier is averaging 17.9 points and 4.9 assists, at times looking like former teammate Kemba Walker, who led UConn to a national championship in 2011, defeating Kentucky along the way in the Final Four.
"It's a great idea to be in that situation where people are comparing me to him," Napier said. "But at the end of the day, I'm not him. I want to do what he did: win the championship. Like I just said, we're just doing it a different way and walking a different path. We all want to get to the same promised land."
The Cats, having returned to the team hotel after midnight following a win over Wisconsin, have had little time to get into detailed scouting of the Huskies. They then had to tend to media obligations early Sunday afternoon, but UK planned to get down to business soon after.
"We basically woke up this morning and ate breakfast, but as soon as we get back we're going to be watching some film," Dominique Hawkins said. "We know that Napier, he's a great, great guard and all their players are good players. They wouldn't be in the national championship for no reason."
UConn played the early game on Saturday evening, so has had more time to take a closer look at Kentucky. Napier, having seen the Harrison twins in action, doesn't put much stock into the supposed battle of quickness vs. length when it comes to the Cats and Huskies.
"I think the Harrison twins are quick as us too," Napier said. "They're quick and strong. I don't think our quickness is going to beat them. I believe, when you're young, you got young feet. So I think it's definitely going to be tough. I think the Harrison twins have been playing much better."
That, of course, includes Aaron Harrison's incredible late-game heroics.
The UK shooting guard has now hit deciding 3-pointers in each of the Cats' last three wins, the latest an NBA-range dagger with 5.7 seconds left against Wisconsin.
"He's got that clutch gene that everyone's been talking about," Napier said. "He's not scared to miss the shot, because that's the chance you take. You take that shot, there's a chance you miss it. But he's going to be the guy that's wanting to be the hero and that's just a lot of respect."
But if you're looking for an x-factor that could play an important role in deciding Monday's outcome, look no further than Hawkins. Even though he's unlikely to even attempt a shot -- Hawkins scored for the first time in nearly three months on Saturday -- the matchup with UConn paves the way for the Kentucky native to see extended time.
Hawkins, after playing no more than seven minutes in a game since Jan. 8, has played 37 minutes over his last three outings. It all started when John Calipari took him aside in practice before UK's Sweet 16 showdown with Louisville, telling Hawkins to be ready for his shot at shadowing Russ Smith.
He ended up getting it, and was effective in limiting the Cardinal star as the Cats closed on a back-breaking run.
Smith and Napier, in terms of size, quickness and ability to score and distribute, are similar players. That begs the question: Has Coach Cal pulled Hawkins aside again for a similar conversation to the one that happened 10 days ago?
"Not yet," Hawkins said. "But hopefully he does because I'll be looking forward to the challenge."