Comparing Shabazz Napier, Kemba Walker is unfair but inevitable

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NEW YORK — For Shabazz Napier, there’s no sense in fighting it. The comparisons are coming whether he likes it or not. That’s simply what is going to happen when an All-American point guard carries a team on a deep run through March three years after another All-American point guard, Kemba Walker, carried the same program on a deep run through March.

Fair or not — it’s not, for the record — they are going to come flooding in as we get closer and closer to college basketball’s biggest stage, and for now, it seems as if Napier has accepted that fact even if he’s unlikely to embrace it.

“That’s for you guys to say. I don’t know. I’m just here trying to play basketball,” Napier said after his No. 7 seeded Huskies won the East Regional title with a 60-54 victory over No. 4 Michigan State on Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden. “Of course I’m going to be compared to him because what he did when he was here was just tremendous. It’s never going to be done again. I’m not out there trying to replace what he did.”

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Napier, who hails from Boston, is right in one respect: What Walker did may never be replicated. He led a UConn team that was stocked with freshmen and sophomores to five wins in five days en route to a Big East tournament title and followed that up with six wins in three weeks, the last of which was a 53-41 victory over Butler in the national title game. That’s 11 wins in less than four weeks in the month of March.

That’s unheard of, and it’s one of the biggest reasons that Walker ended up being the No. 7 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. It’s the single biggest reason that he will go down as arguably the most popular UConn Husky in the history of the storied program that Jim Calhoun built.

And it’s an impossible standard to try and hold Napier up to, especially when a very valid argument can be made that getting this UConn team to the Final Four is a more impressive accomplishment than Walker leading that 2011 team to a title. But at least we are comparing apples to apples here. What the duo has been able to accomplish on the court is at least similar, whereas their demeanors and skill sets differ substantially.

Walker is a freak of an athlete, one of the quickest and most athletic point guards in the NBA these days. He blows by people, using his jump shot as a counter to keep defenses from sloughing off of him. Napier’s game is much more crafty. I think he can dunk, but I’ve never actually seen him dunk in a game. He’s quick, but he doesn’t have sprinter speed. His biggest skill is his ability to keep an defender off balance and read which way his opponent is leaning. His biggest strength is his basketball IQ and savviness.

Walker is as gregarious as a kid can come, blessed with the kind of larger-than-life personality that can only be bred in the Bronx. His smile is infectious and his charm is contagious. Napier is quieter, more introverted. His approach to the game is workmanlike, and what defines him, as Calhoun put is, is “his incredible self-belief” and his ability to instill that belief in others.

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“These kids would follow him across the desert for a drink of water,” Calhoun said. “As much as any single other thing, Shabazz led this team. You could see him talking to them. His swagger, his positive arrogance about how good they are translates to every other player out there.”

That wasn’t an easy thing for Napier to develop, either.

He couldn’t have taken over the program at a more difficult point in time.

Napier was a freshman on the 2011 team that won the title. He was the sidekick to Walker in the back court, the point guard that allowed Calhoun to use Walker off the ball. He played a major role in bringing home UConn’s third championship banner and he was expected to take over the role that Walker vacated when he left for the NBA. Throw in the fact that UConn had a roster that included Jeremy Lamb, Andre Drummond, Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith in Napier’s sophomore year, and UConn entered the preseason as a consensus top three team.

And it all went to hell.

The Huskies were a mess during Big East play, eventually flaming out of the first round of the NCAA tournament as a No. 9 seed. A lot of the blame got pinned on Napier that season. He was supposed to be the leader, and he wasn’t leading. As the saying goes, a point guard’s most important stat is his winning percentage. The issue, however, was that Napier simply didn’t know how to lead. He didn’t know how to differentiate between yelling and motivating. He didn’t know how to react to players laughing off a loss. He didn’t yet understand that every person is going to handle losing a different way, and while every loss was, for him, as bad as it could get, he couldn’t grasp that it was possible to be as competitive as he was without being as demonstratively distraught after a disappointing performance.

“He wasn’t mature enough,” Calhoun said. “He had to fine tune who Shabazz was. He tried to lead at a time when he couldn’t lead. Following Kemba Walker? That’s a tough act to follow. He wasn’t as good sophomore year when I coached as he should have been. Last year under Kevin he started to blossom a little bit. This year, that great Shabazz gave himself to his teammates.”

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Shabazz long ago climbed out of the shadow cast by Kemba and his national title. He did it when he led last year’s team to 20 wins despite the fact that there was no tournament waiting for them as the end of the season. He did it when he turned himself into an All-American this season. He did it with all of the big shots that he’s made throughout his career.

He may look like Walker from afar, and he may end up accomplishing the same thing, but the two differ as much as their accents.

“A lot of the things I do is what he did, because I learned from him,” Napier said. “He made it there, but I’m just out here trying to be myself and create my own path.”

There is one thing that Napier indisputably has in common with Walker, however: When he leaves UConn, he is going to be a tough act to follow.

No. 11 Loyola moves on to Elite Eight after beating No. 7 Nevada

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Loyola is in the Elite Eight.

The Ramblers’ dream run through March continued Thursday as they knocked off No. 7 Nevada, 69-68, in South Region semifinal in Atlanta.

Loyola, an 11th seed making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1985, will play the winner of Kansas State and Kentucky on Sunday for a chance to return to the Final Four for the first time since it won the 1963 national championship.

Marques Townes hit a 3-pointer with under 10 seconds to play to put the Ramblers up four and put the game all but out of reach for Nevada. Townes finished with 18 points while Clayton Custer had 15.  Loyola shot 55.8 percent from the floor for the game.

The Wolf Pack’s Caleb Martin had 21 points while Jordan Caroline had 19. Nevada shot 41.4 percent from the floor.

Nevada looked like it may overwhelm Loyola early as it built a 12-point lead less than seven minutes into the game. The Ramblers, though, struck back by keeping the Wolf Pack off the board for nearly the last 8 minutes of the first half to take a four-point lead into the break.

The strong play considered on the other side of halftime for Loyola, which astonishingly made its first 13 shots of the second half. Still, despite the perfect start, the Ramblers only briefly took a double-digit lead before Nevada sliced it back down below 10.

Loyola’s inability to build a substantial lead came back to bite it as Nevada, the comeback kids of this tournament, mounted its attack on the deficit and had it erased before the under-four timeout, setting up the final frantic minutes of a battle for a spot in the Elite Eight that the Ramblers claimed thanks to Townes’ late triple.

2018 March Madness: Fans in Times Square pick fake teams in Sweet 16 predictions

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NBC Sports went into Times Square this week to ask basketball fans for their Sweet 16 picks.

The only problem?

The teams in the games are not actually playing in the NCAA Tournament.

They aren’t even actually teams.

Hilarity ensued.

Miami’s Bruce Brown declares for draft without an agent

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Bruce Brown wants to hear what the NBA has to say.

The Miami sophomore has declared for the draft but will not hire an agent, the school announced Thursday.

The 6-foot-5 guard averaged 11.4 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game during his second season with the Hurricanes. He did, though, see his shooting numbers take a tumble compared to his freshman season with his field goal percentage down from 45.9 to 41.5 percent and his 3-point shoot go from 34.7 to 26.7 percent. There’s also the matter of a foot injury that required surgery and kept him off the floor for the ‘Canes’ last 12 games.

By declaring for the draft, Brown can get in front of NBA teams, who will likely take a very close look at his shooting mechanics after that sophomore season downturn. It will also be an opportunity for him to build up his reputation in the professional ranks after spending much of his sophomore season injured.

Big East makes its rules recommendations in wake of FBI probe

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The Big East has ideas.

The conference on Thursday unveiled its recommendations to change college basketball in the wake of the federal investigation of corruption that resulted in 10 initial arrests and general tumult across the sport.

Among the recommendations are allowing players to go pro out of high school but requiring those who go to college to stay there at least two seasons.  They also posit increased regulation of agents, shoe companies and its own members as well as a changed recruiting calendar and more coordination with USA Basketball.

These all seem well-intentioned, but probably not destined for implementation or success.

First off, the age limit that creates one-and-dones is an NBA rule, and no matter what lobbying the NCAA does, they’re not likely to change it on college’s behalf. Any change there will come at the behest of the National Basketball Players Association. The only real leverage the NCAA has on this front would be to declare freshmen ineligible as they once were, but that seems incredibly unlikely. The idea was floated a few years back, but felt entirely like a bluff.

Even if the NCAA somehow mandated players spend at least two seasons on campus, that seems incredibly anti-player. Trae Young probably wouldn’t have left Norman North High School after his senior year, but it would be silly to make him stay another season at Oklahoma if he didn’t want to after the year he just had. Going to college helped Young’s draft stock, but staying there would almost certainly hurt him.

Players that play their way into a multi-million future being made to stick around and play for free for an extra year doesn’t seem to be a viable solution in 2018. Beyond being anti-player on its face, it could fuel even more negative consequences for players who feel they are fringe candidates. Instead of just going to school for a year and proving themselves, some players may just decide they don’t want to risk being there for two years and declare, essentially, a year early.

It also is worth noting that the same document that calls for shoe company influence to be curtailed while also bringing in USA Basketball, which is very intertwined with Nike, is…interesting.

At the end of the day, these recommendations address symptoms – and probably not that well – rather than the root cause, which is amateurism. As long as players, who clearly, literally and inarguably have value beyond their scholarship, are unable to cash in on their skills, there will be people willing to pay them surreptitiously.

It’s hard to “clean up the game” when the “dirty money” isn’t going anywhere.

Purdue’s Isaac Haas unlikely to play on Friday

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BOSTON — Isaac Haas has become the biggest story in the East Regional, as he, with the help of a group of mechanical engineering grad students at Purdue, tries to find a way to play through the broken elbow that he suffered in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

And head coach Matt Painter threw a glass of cold water on those dreams on Thursday.

“He didn’t practice the last two days,” Painter said, “and when you don’t practice, you don’t play.”

“I don’t see him playing until he can practice and show me he can shoot a right-handed free throw and get a rebound with two hands,” he added. “I would think he’s done. To me, it’s the eye test. It’s going out and watching him. He can go practice today if he wants, and I can evaluate him. But if he doesn’t practice, nothing changes, right? No matter what I say or you say or he says especially, he fractured his elbow. You know what I mean? So if you fractured your elbow and you can’t shoot a free throw, I don’t know how it changes in two days.”

No. 2-seed Purdue plays No. 3-seed Texas Tech in the East Regional semifinals on Friday night.

That hasn’t stopped Haas from lobbying his head coach to let him on the floor if the officials clear the brace that was rigged for him. The brace was not cleared on Saturday for Purdue’s second round game against Butler.

“I told him multiple times, that hey, even if it’s one minute, it’s worth it to me,” Haas said. “I’ll just keep trying and giving my best effort to be out there. I don’t care if I’m out there or not, you do what you need to do, but if I’m an option, call me up.”

Haas’ ability to shoot isn’t the only concern. If he falls, he could do more damage to injury, requiring more extensive surgery after the season. He said that the injury should keep him out for 2-to-3 months, but those Purdue engineers, they’ve been trying to find a way to get him on the floor.

“My email’s been blowing up with people saying here’s some stuff you can do, here’s some stuff that we have,” Haas said. “It’s funny because they’re all saying this stuff and or trainer and doctors have all that stuff already. I reply, ‘thank you for your consideration. Means a lot, but we have those same machines here.'”