NEW YORK–Let’s stop the noise before it starts. Shabazz Napier is not this year’s Kemba Walker.
Following his team’s 71-67 overtime win over West Virginia on Wednesday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun wanted to draw a distinction between his 2011 National Championship team and his 2012 squad.
“Last year and this year, two completely different deals. This is not Kemba Walker,” Calhoun said, pointing down the table at guard Shabazz Napier. “He’s a totally different player. “
Napier had a game-high 26 points, including a personal 9-0 run at the end of regulation to help Connecticut to force overtime, before fouling out in the extra session.
“I think any comparisons are unfair to last year’s team and unfair to this team,” Calhoun continued. “In the last week that I’ve been around Shabazz, he’s a different player than he was three weeks ago.”
What was going on three weeks ago? Napier had just called out his teammates, telling the Hearst Connecticut’s Kevin Duffy, “I hate to say it, but I gotta question some of these guys’ heart,” after a loss to Marquette.
On Wednesday afternoon, he changed course completely, saying almost the exact opposite.
“I have faith in my teammates no matter what,” he said. “I know Jeremy [Lamb], I know [Ryan Boatright], I know Andre [Drummond]…I love watching them play because they play with a lot of heart. That’s exactly what they did.”
Napier, himself, was the one who played with considerable heart, powering the Huskies while fellow guard Jeremy Lamb, who still finished with a strong 22 points, was quiet for the majority of the second half.
Not that the sophomore had shied away from the spotlight recently, though. Does anyone remember when he pulled up a few steps inside the half-court line and nailed a shot to beat Villanova?
But Wednesday’s big game doesn’t automatically crown him the leader of the Huskies, going forward.
“He’s one of our more vocal leaders. We’re all leaders in our own way. We all have something to say to each other,” said freshman Andre Drummond, who had seven points and four rebounds. “It’s not just one person. That’s not how it works.”
There is one thing to be certain about, though: the leader of the 2012 Huskies might be Jeremy Lamb, Alex Oriakhi, Shabazz Napier, or someone else, or all of them together, but it certainly is not Kemba Walker.
Calhoun may have had the most succinct, pithy response as to why one should leave memories and comparisons to Walker in the past.
“Kemba is making a lot of money, just built a house, doing great.”
And with a laugh, Connecticut moves on to play Syracuse on Thursday at noon.This video is no longer available. Click here to watch more NBC Sports videos!