Talk about highs and lows.
As a freshman in April 2011, Shabazz Napier experienced the ultimate collegiate basketball success when the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team defeated Butler, 53-41, to win the NCAA championship.
Eighteen months later, the Huskies were issued a one-year ban by the NCAA prohibiting their appearance in a postseason tournament, legendary UConn coach Jim Calhoun decided to retire for health reasons and was replaced by his assistant coach, Kevin Ollie, and Napier wondered whether or not to transfer to another school in order to preserve one last shot at a national title his senior year.
Ollie managed to convince him to stay, but Napier needn’t have worried.
On Monday night, he and the Huskies (32-8) won their second national title in four years, beating the University of Kentucky (29-11) and their vaunted freshman class, 60-54, in a tense, exciting game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
In winning “bookend national championships,” as CBS’s Jim Nantz described Napier’s college career feat during the postgame award ceremony, the 6-foot-1 point guard went from skilled backup to starter Kemba Walker to the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament.
Napier, who nearly played for the Puerto Rican national team in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics but got injured, led the Huskies with 22 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals in the back-and-forth game.
The Huskies built up a 33-20 lead with four minutes left in the first half, only to have Kentucky’s young stars cut it to only a four-point lead at the half, 35-31.
Again in the second half, Kentucky applied withering defensive pressure. The Wildcats were taller and more athletic than the Huskies and during some stretches seemed to block or partially block every UConn attempt in the paint.
With 11 minutes to go in the game, a Napier jumper stretched the UConn lead to 48-39, but the Wildcats chipped away, with shooting guard James Young scoring 6 points, closing to 48-47 with a little over 8 minutes left.
Despite the way Kentucky appeared to dominate the game for long stretches in the second half, Connecticut never relinquished the lead, and held on for the title, aided by the Wildcats shooting an abysmal 54.2 percent from the free-throw line.
In six NCAA Tournament games, Napier averaged 21.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.5 assists a game and was named the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
When asked by Nantz about winning his second national title, Napier was distracted by his teammates and the screaming fans and the blue and white confetti raining down from the arena’s rafters and said, “Honestly, I want to get everyone’s attention here: You are looking at the hungry Huskies. This is what happens when you ban us!”
The powers-that-be in basketball don’t always show a great regard for four-year college players or for undersized ones like the Huskies point guard. Kentucky was the odds-on favorite of winning the title despite being a No. 8 seed (UConn was a 7) because they were seen as having more talent than the Huskies, especially in the front court.
The next challenge for Napier is the 2014 NBA Draft in June, and he may face a similar bias.
Forget about which team won the title and which player was named MOP, Kentucky’s Julius Randle is the likely top pick. Napier? His stock has risen thanks to his dominating performance in the Tournament. He may go as soon as No. 20.