Shabazz Napier

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.

SUNDAY’S SNACKS: No. 5 Iowa, No. 12 SMU pick up road wins

SMU guard Nic Moore (11) passes around South Florida guard Jahmal McMurray (0) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)
AP Photo/Brian Blanco
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GAME OF THE DAY: James Madison 98, Hofstra 95 (OT)

The Dukes managed to fight back at home against Hofstra, with a Ron Curry three-pointer forcing overtime. From there Matt Brady’s team took control against a Hofstra team with little depth thanks to injuries throughout the course of the season. Curry scored a game-high 31 for the Dukes, who forced a three-way tie for third in the CAA with this win (Hofstra and Towson are also 8-4). Brian Bernardi scored 22 points and Juan’ya Green became just the fourth player in Division I history to score 1,000 points at two schools (Niagara being the other) in the loss for Hofstra.

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

No. 5 Iowa 77, Illinois 65: The Fighting Illini got off to a slow start offensively, missing their first 11 two-point attempts, and they were unable to climb out of that hole against the Big Ten-leading Hawkeyes. Peter Jok scored 23 points and Jarrod Uthoff posted a double-double of 18 points and 12 boards for Iowa, which limited Illinois to 39.4 percent shooting from the field.

No. 16 Oregon 76, Utah 66: The Ducks maintained sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 with a ten-point win over the Runnin’ Utes in Eugene. The game changed in the first half when Jakob Poeltl was given his second foul, and from that point on Dana Altman’s team controlled the action. Dillon Brooks was outstanding in the win, setting new career highs in points (30) and assists (nine) while also grabbing six rebounds.

STARRED

Dillon Brooks, Oregon: 30 points, six rebounds, nine assists and two steals in the Ducks’ win over Utah.

Shake Milton, SMU: Milton shot 6-for-9 from three, scoring 22 points in the Mustangs’ 92-58 win at USF.

Ron Curry, James Madison: Curry scored 31 points and hit the game-tying three pointer late in regulation as the Dukes came back to beat Hofstra 98-95 in overtime.

Rachel Banham, Minnesota: Banham became the second woman in Division I history to score 60 points in a game, doing so in the Golden Gophers’ 112-106 double overtime win at Northwestern. Banham shot 19-for-32 from the field and 14-for-16 from the foul line.

STRUGGLED

Brandon Taylor, Utah: Taylor went scoreless in a loss at No. 16 Utah, going 0-for-4 from the field and committing four turnovers.

Nehemias Morillo, USF: Morillo scored three points on 1-for-7 shooting and committed four turnovers in the Bulls’ loss to No. 12 SMU.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

  • No. 12 SMU picked up another win, as they blew out USF 92-58 in Tampa. Shake Milton led five Mustangs in double figures with 22 points, and Nic Moore finished with 17 points and eight assists.
  • No. 17 Miami moved to 7-3 in ACC play with a 75-68 win at Georgia Tech. Sheldon McClellan scored 22 points and Davon Reed 15 for the Hurricanes, who host Pittsburgh Tuesday night.

OTHER NOTABLE RESULTS

  • UConn has won each of its last three games by at least 18 points, as Sunday afternoon they handled East Carolina 85-67. Rodney Purvis and Shonn Miller scored 16 points apiece, and Daniel Hamilton chipped in with 12 points, 16 rebounds, five assists and three steals.
  • Iona remained a game behind Monmouth in the MAAC standings as they won 75-61 at Niagara. Isaiah Williams scored 21 points and Deyshonee Much 15 for the Gaels, who are 10-3 in league play.
  • Jaylen Adams’ three pointer as time expired gave St. Bonaventure a 65-62 win at home over Saint Louis. Adams scored 19 points, Marcus Posley 15 and Dion Wright 14 (along with ten boards) for the Bonnies.
  • Also in the MAAC, Marist upset Siena by the final score of 79-73 in Poughkeepsie. Brian Parker scored 24 points for the Red Foxes, who won despite Siena’s Nico Clareth scoring a career-high 26.
  • Pat Birt scored 27 points to lead Tulsa to a 77-63 win over Houston. Damyean Dotson scored 23 points for the Cougars, whose three-game win streak came to an end with the defeat.

Milton, Moore help No. 12 SMU rout South Florida 92-58

Memphis forward Dedric Lawson (1) defends as SMU guard Nic Moore (11) leaps to the basket for a shot during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Dallas. SMU won 80-68.  (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Shake Milton scored 22 points and Nic Moore added 17 as No. 12 SMU rebounded from its second loss of the season with a 92-58 rout of struggling South Florida on Sunday.

The Mustangs (20-2, 9-2 American Athletic Conference) shrugged off a three-point road loss to Houston by matching their season high with 14 3-pointers and shooting 60 percent overall. They never trailed, scoring the game’s first 11 points. SMU hit its last six shots before halftime and then opened the second half with an 8-0 run to build their lead to 30 points.

Jahmal McMurray led South Florida (5-20, 2-10) with 18 points.

SMU, which had lost two straight on the road, has matched the best 22-game start in school history. The Mustangs won 26 of their first 28 games before finishing 26-4 in 1955-56.

The conference leaders have topped 20 wins in three of four seasons under Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, who was suspended for the first nine games of the season and will not be able to take the Mustangs to this year’s NCAA tournament because of multiple rules infractions.

Milton made 8 of 12 shots, including 6 of 9 from beyond the 3-point arc. Five of Moore’s six field goals were 3-pointers, and the senior guard finished with eight assists.

Jordan Tolbert made all five of his shots on the way 15 points and Markus Kennedy came off the bench to contribute 10 points and grab a team-high nine rebounds for SMU.

South Florida clinched its second 20-loss season in three years under coach Orlando Antigua. Jaleel Cousins scored 13 points and Angel Nunez had 12 points and nine rebounds for the Bulls, who trailed by as many as 36 points in the second half.

TIP-INS

SMU: The Mustangs improved to 2-2 following a school-best 18-0 start, stopping a two-game road skid included a nine-point setback at Temple and the three-point loss at Houston. SMU has won 27 games each of the past two seasons and its 74 wins since the start of 2013-14 are the most during a three-season span in program history.

South Florida: The Bulls haven’t beaten a ranked team since Feb. 19, 2012, when they upset No. 19 Louisville 58-51 on the road. They haven’t defeated a Top 25 opponent in the Sun Dome since a two-point win over No. 23 Seton Hall on Jan. 13, 2012. USF is 0-3 vs. ranked opponents this season, with two of the three losses to SMU. The Bulls lost to then-No. 1 Kentucky on Nov. 27.

UP NEXT

SMU hosts Tulsa on Wednesday.

South Florida is at Temple on Feb. 14.