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.

Five Things We Learned This Week: Gonzaga’s a talking point, Monk’s a terror, Duke hasn’t changed

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 9: #5 Nigel Williams-Goss of the Gonzaga Bulldogs drives past #10 Brandon Brown and #15 Stefan Jovanovic of the Loyola Marymount Lions, on his way to the basket at Gersten Pavilion on February 9, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images)
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1. Gonzaga is going to be the team that we spend the most time arguing about for the next two weeks: That was probably already going to be the case given that the Zags get no credit for their record as a member of the WCC, but losing at home in a game where they led by 16 points is going to throw that argument into overdrive.

Can Gonzaga win a title? Is this a team you can trust in March? Do the Zags deserve a No. 1 seed? Are they nothing but a bunch of frauds?

I tried to warn you that this was coming six weeks ago.

Guess what: it’s here.

2. UCLA beat another elite team with some clutch defending: A little more than two weeks ago, Oregon went into Pauley Pavilion, opened up a 19-point lead and looked like they were ready to cruise to a blowout win over the Bruins, that is until UCLA finally decided to stop defending like a CYO team that just found out their postseason pizza party was canceled.

The same thing happened on Saturday night in Tucson.

Only this time, the Bruins switched to a 3-2 with 15 minutes left in the game, crashed the offensive glass and totally took the air out of the ball and Arizona out of their rhythm. For 25 minutes, the Wildcats got whatever they wanted offensively against UCLA. For the final 15 minutes, they looked like they had never practiced zone offense.

The concern with the Bruins is always going to be how well they defend. As good as they are offensively, they have to be able to get some stops if they’re going to be the elite teams across the country. They’ve down that the last two times they’ve faced an elite team in conference play and now own wins at Kentucky and at Arizona, and, if it wasn’t for Dillon Brooks hitting a buzzer-beating three, they’d have a win at Oregon, too.

The Bruins have their flaws, but man, this team still looks pretty dangerous.

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3. Is North Carolina the best team in the country?: That’s the argument that I made when the Tar Heels picked off Louisville at home on Wednesday. Where is their weakness? Is it Joel Berry II’s consistency? Because that’s less of a concern with Justin Jackson playing the way that he has been playing.

Is it their health? Theo Pinson and Isaiah Hicks have battled injuries this year and the Tar Heels need both of them on the floor because it’s unclear just how good they actually are defensively. Hicks is also always in foul trouble, which is never a good thing in a single-elimination tournament, and neither is a team that doesn’t have a multitude of great shooters.

But when compared to the rest of the elites in college hoops, those question marks seem relatively minor. Kentucky is too often a one-man team. Gonzaga’s guards might not be good enough. Duke and Kansas have no inside depth. Louisville’s scorers can’t score. Arizona doesn’t have a point guard. Oregon has had some issues with consistency. UCLA doesn’t defend.

We can play this game with everyone.

The issues that are brought up with the Tar Heels, however, just seem relatively minor in comparison.

4. Malik Monk is the scariest player in college basketball: It’s not like this is breaking news or anything. Monk has been lighting up defenses all season long. He’s been single-handedly winning games for Kentucky since the start of the season. He had 47 points in the win over North Carolina. He had 31 points in the second half and overtime to help the Wildcats avoid an upset loss to Georgia. He had 33 points against Ole Miss.

This is just kind of what he does.

But Saturday’s performance felt different because before Monk went for 30 second half points to help lead the De’Aaron Fox-less Wildcats to a win over No. 13 Florida, a win that gives them the inside track to an SEC regular season title, he played one of the worst halves of his career. He was 1-for-5 from the floor with three points, five turnovers and two fouls. That came after he had just 11 points in a closer-than-it-should-have-been win at Missouri.

Monk turned it on like that in a game where Florida, a top five defensive team in the country, spent 20 minutes executing the “Stop Malik Monk” game-plan to perfection.

You don’t want to see a guy that can do that on your side of the bracket.

LEXINGTON, KY - FEBRUARY 14: Malik Monk #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the ball against the Tennessee Volunteers at Rupp Arena on February 14, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Malik Monk (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

5. Duke is exactly who they were a week ago: I’m done trying to tell people what to think of Duke. You all made up your minds weeks or months ago. If you’re like me, you see a roster that includes Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen and you pick them to win most of the games they play in. But if you look at their lack of interior defense, their depth issues, the injuries that won’t go away and the point guard question marks and worry about a team like that making a run, you’re certainly not wrong.

Duke is beatable.

We saw that this week, when they fell on a banked-in, buzzer-beating 23-footer at Syracuse and lost by five at Miami.

What I will tell you, however, is that if you let those two losses change the way you felt about Duke prior to Wednesday’s tip, you’re being silly.

Winning on the road in the ACC is hard. There’s a reason there are people talking about the conference as maybe the best ever. There’s a reason that only one team in the league has less than five league losses with two games left in the regular season. These are two road games to likely tournament teams decided by a total of eight points.

Losses like that are the kind of thing that happen in college basketball.

Team of the Week: Miami Hurricanes

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - FEBRUARY 20: Bruce Brown #11 of the Miami Hurricanes shoots the ball over Devon Hall #0 of the Virginia Cavaliers during a game at John Paul Jones Arena on February 20, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Chet Strange/Getty Images)
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Believe it or not, Miami actually entered this week without having an NCAA tournament bid locked up.

They had just two wins over tournament-caliber teams on the season and four loseable games left on their schedule.

Well, things change fast in college basketball, and now we’re looking at a situation where the Hurricanes might be able to climb their way up as high as a No. 5 seed. It started with an overtime win at No. 18 Virginia, where the Hurricanes matched Virginia stop-for-stop in a 54-48 overtime win. (You didn’t misread that score.)

They followed that up by picking off No. 10 Duke at home as Bruce Brown played like the best freshman in the ACC and the Hurricanes once again looked like one of the nation’s best defensive teams, holding the Blue Devils to 50 points and Jayson Tatum and Luke Kennard to a-combined 10-for-36 shooting.

The Hurricanes may now find themselves ranked in the top 25 this week.

Not bad for a team that was still in doubt of being in the tournament at this time last week.

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THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Butler: The Bulldogs just keep winning. For a team that has already amassed wins over the likes of Villanova at home and Arizona on a neutral floor, this was probably their best week of the season. Not only did they hand Villanova’s player their first-ever loss at The Pavilion, but they also picked off Xavier in Cincinnati.
  • UCLA: The Bruins made a statement on Saturday night, as they went into Tucson and beat Arizona, making a run in the second half that was built around their defense and ability to crash the glass. UCLA now has the best pair of road wins — they won at Kentucky as well — of any team in the country.
  • Providence: The Friars have just about played their way into the NCAA tournament, assuming they don’t find a way to lose to St. John’s or DePaul in the last week of the regular season. They picked off Creighton and Marquette this week after beating Xavier and Butler last week.
  • UNC: The Tar Heels clinched at least a share of their eighth regular season title in the last 13 years this week when they beat Louisville and won at Pitt. The Tar Heels also staked their claim to being the best team in college basketball.
  • Iowa State: The Cyclones have turned things around since they slotted Solomon Young in the post in their starting lineup. They’ve won five straight games, and this week alone they won at Texas Tech and picked off Baylor at home.

Player of the Week: J.J. Frazier, Georgia

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 21:  J.J. Frazier #30 of the Georgia Bulldogs drives toward the basket as Yuta Watanabe #12 of the George Washington Colonials defends during the CBE Hall of Fame Classic game at the Sprint Center on November 21, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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J.J. Frazier deserves more credit and more attention than he has gotten this season, and there’s no better time to give it to him than this week.

In two games — two wins that keep Georgia’s minuscule hopes of getting an at-large bid alive — Frazier averaged 28.5 points and 4.5 assists, leading the Bulldogs to wins at Alabama and over LSU at home despite the fact that they are playing without Yante Maten, who sprained his knee in last Saturday’s game against Kentucky.

Frazier, by the way, had 36 points in that game against the Wildcats.

All told, he’s gone for at least 28 points in four of his last five games and has spent the better part of February as arguably the best guard in the SEC. Yes, that includes Malik Monk.

The unfortunate part of this is that the J.J. Frazier takeover happened too late. The Bulldogs are likely going to end up on the wrong side of the bubble because they have six losses in league play by six points or less or in overtime. They lost at Florida in OT. They lost at Kentucky in OT. They lost to Kentucky at home by five. They lost to South Carolina twice by a combined eight points. They lost at Texas A&M because the clock stopped running on the final possession, meaning that they didn’t get their final shot off in time despite the fact that there were 5.6 seconds listed on the clock when the shot was taken.

It’s been brutal.

The least we can do is give the kid his shine.

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THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Bam Adebayo, Kentucky: Adebayo is starting to play his best basketball of the season. It started with a 22-point, 15-rebound performance in a win at Missouri on That was followed up by the 18 points and 15 boards he put on Florida, damn-near finishing with a first half double-double that kept Florida from being able to open a lead Kentucky couldn’t bounce-back from.
  • Eric Mika and Elijah Bryant, BYU: The best performance from a Cougar that we saw this week was the 29 points and 11 boards that Mika had when BYU won at No. 1 Gonzaga and ended their undefeated season. But Bryant, who had 14 points in that win, also went for 39 points during the week as BYU beat Portland.
  • Justin Jackson, UNC: Jackson seems to have taken control of the race for ACC Player of the Year thanks for the 21 points he scored in UNC’s emphatic win over Louisville on Wednesday. He followed that up with 23 points in a win at Pitt.
  • Monte’ Morris, Iowa State: Morris had 23 points and six assists in an overtime win at Texas Tech on Monday night, following that up with 17 points and seven assists as the Cyclones picked off No. 9 Baylor in Hilton Coliseum on Saturday. They’ve now won five straight games.
  • Bruce Brown, Miami: The Hurricanes scored 109 total points in wins at Virginia  (in overtime!) and over Duke at home this week, and Brown had 39 of them, scoring a team-high 14 points against the Wahoos before popping off for 25 against the Blue Devils.

College Basketball Talk Top 25: Kansas, North Carolina vault past Gonzaga, Villanova

AUSTIN, TX - FEBRUARY 25: Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks drives around Andrew Jones #1 of the Texas Longhorns at the Frank Erwin Center on February 25, 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)
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With Gonzaga taking their first loss of the season on Saturday night, it’s time for a reshuffle at the top of the top 25 standings.

We went with Kansas in the top spot, although I’m not sure if they’re actually the best team in the country.

I think North Carolina may be more complete, and while the Jayhawks have some serious front court depth concerns, if you were to give me the choice of a top seven vs. top seven, I would probably pick Kansas.

Anyway, here is the rest of this week’s top 25:

1. Kansas (26-3, Last Week: No. 3)
2. North Carolina (25-5, 6)
3. Gonzaga (29-1, 1)
4. Villanova (27-3, 2)
5. Oregon (26-4, 5)
6. UCLA (26-3, 8)
7. Louisville (23-6, 4)
8. Arizona (26-4, 7)
9. Kentucky (24-5, 11)
10. West Virginia (23-6, 10)
11. Baylor (23-6, 9)
12. Butler (23-6, 24)
13. Duke (22-7, 12)
14. Florida (23-6, 14)
15. SMU (25-4, 17)
16. Purdue (23-6, 13)
17. Notre Dame (22-7, 18)
18. Saint Mary’s (26-3, 19)
19. Florida State (23-6, 20)
20. Iowa State (19-9, 21)
21. Cincinnati (25-4, 16)
22. Wisconsin (22-7, 15)
23. Wichita State (27-4, 25)
24. Oklahoma State (20-9, UR)
25. Miami (20-9, UR)

DROPPED OUT: No. 22 Virginia, No. 23 Northwester
NEW ADDITIONS: No. 24 Oklahoma State, No. 25 Miami

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