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.

LATE NIGHT SNACKS: Five ranked teams fall, No. 12 Arizona survives

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GAME OF THE DAY: Syracuse 79, No. 18 UConn 76

The former Big East rivals met in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis and the game did not disappoint, with Jim Boeheim’s Orange pulling out a three-point victory. Michael Gbinije (17 points, seven assists) and Trevor Cooney played well on the perimeter, but junior Tyler Roberson and freshmen Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon made some big plays as well.

UConn couldn’t get the rebound of a Cooney missed shot in the final seconds, not getting a chance at a game-tying shot as a result. Daniel Hamilton led the Huskies with 18 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists.

Rob Dauster wrote more about this game here.


Monmouth 70, No. 17 Notre Dame 68: Justin Robinson made two free throws with 3.6 seconds remaining to give the Hawks a two-point win over the Fighting Irish at the Advocare Invitational in Orlando. Robinson scored a game-high 22 points, with Demetrius Jackson leading Notre Dame with 20.

No. 25 Texas A&M 62, No. 10 Gonzaga 61: Billy Kennedy’s team played outstanding defense on the Bulldogs’ final possession of the game, switching all screens and hanging on as Silas Melson’s shot missed the mark. Danuel House scored 19 points and Tonny Trocha-Morelos added 14 for the Aggies, who will play Syracuse in Friday’s Battle 4 Atlantis title game. Kyle Wiltjer scored 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds for Gonzaga.

San Diego State 72, No. 14 California 58: With 17:24 remaining the Golden Bears led 45-30 and looked well-positioned to advance to Friday’s Continental Las Vegas Classic title game. From that point on they were outscored 42-13, with SDSU combining improved offense with stifling defense. Winston Shepard scored all 15 of his points in the second half and Skylar Spencer added ten second-half points to lead the way for the Aztecs, who will play West Virginia Friday. Ivan Rabb scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lead the Golden Bears.


Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: Valentine posted his second triple-double of the season in the Spartans’ 99-68 win over Boston College, finishing with 29 points, 11 rebounds and ten assists.

Devin Williams, West Virginia: The junior forward scored 23 points and grabbed 12 rebounds to lead the Mountaineers to a 67-59 win over Richmond in Las Vegas.

Charles Mitchell, Georgia Tech: Mitchell scored 18 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in a win over Arkansas.

Jared Brownridge, Santa Clara: Sure he shot 11-for-29 from the field in scoring his 44 points, but given Santa Clara’s youth and lack of a consistent supplementary scorer Brownridge has to take those shots. The Broncos took No. 12 Arizona to overtime before falling by two points.


Stanford: Not only did the Cardinal shoot 26 percent in their loss to No. 8 Villanova, but they also committed 23 turnovers on the day.

Ryan Kemrite, Liberty: Kemrite shot 1-for-10 from the field, scoring two points in the Flames’ 73-62 loss to Appalachian State.

Arizona’s perimeter shooting: The Wildcats shot 3-for-22 from three in a two-point win over Santa Clara. Over the last two games Sean Miller’s team has shot 8-for-44 from beyond the arc.


  • No. 3 Michigan State rolled to a 99-68 win over Boston College, with the result being Tom Izzo’s 500th win as a head coach. Denzel Valentine went for 29 points, 11 rebounds and ten assists.
  • No. 8 Villanova shot just 30.6 percent from the field, but their opponents shot even worse in the 59-46 Wildcat win over Stanford. The Cardinal shot 26 percent from the field and committed 23 turnovers.
  • No. 12 Arizona survived questionable shot selection and a 44-point night from Jared Brownridge to beat winless Santa Clara 75-73 in overtime. Ryan Anderson scored 17 to lead the way for Arizona, which lost Kaleb Tarczewski in the second half to a left ankle injury.
  • Bennie Boatwright scored 22 points to lead USC to a 72-69 win over No. 20 Wichita State. Ron Baker led all scorers with 25 points, but he and Markis McDuffie (14 points) were the only Shockers to reach double figures.
  • No. 23 Xavier took over in the second half of its game against Alabama, outscoring the Crimson Tide by 16 points to win by the final score of 64-45.


  • Texas exacted a measure of revenge on Washington, beating the Huskies 82-70 at the Battle 4 Atlantis. The Huskies won the first meeting between the two teams this season in Shanghai in the season opener for both.
  • Georgia Tech advanced to the title game of the Preseason NIT with a ten-point win over Arkansas in Brooklyn. Charles Mitchell went for 18 points and 18 rebounds for the Yellow Jackets, who play No. 8 Villanova Friday.
  • Anthony Drmic scored 21 points and Chandler Hutchison added 13 points and ten rebounds as Boise State beat UC Irvine 71-64 at the DirecTV Wooden Legacy in Fullerton, California.
  • Devin Williams scored 23 points and grabbed 12 boards in West Virginia’s 67-59 win over Richmond at the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational. The Mountaineers only forced 14 turnovers, but they made up for it by limiting Richmond to 39.1 percent shooting.
  • Ben Bentil scored 24 points and Kris Dunn added 18 as Providence beat Evansville 74-64. The 24 points represents a career high for Bentil.
  • Scoochie Smith made two huge baskets and Charles Cooke scored 22 points as Dayton went on a game-ending 11-2 run to beat Iowa 82-77. Jarrod Uthoff led the Hawkeyes with 18 points.
  • Moritz Wagner scored 19 points to lead four players in double figures as Michigan rolled to a 102-47 win over Charlotte. After struggling offensively against UConn on Wednesday, the Wolverines shot 61.9 percent from the field against the 49ers.

No. 3 Michigan State routs Boston College 99-68

Tom Izzo
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FULLERTON, Calif. (AP) Denzel Valentine had a triple-double of 29 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists, and No. 3 Michigan State beat Boston College 99-68 Thursday in an opening-round game at the DirectTV Wooden Legacy, giving coach Tom Izzo his 500th career victory.

Valentine helped the Spartans expand their 13-point halftime lead to 27 midway through the second half. His second triple-double of the season was the first in the event’s nine-year history.

Valentine’s six 3-pointers were one off his career high, and his points total was a career best.

Tum Tum Nairn added 13 points and eight assists for the Spartans, who shot 63 percent and dominated the boards 38-20.

After the final buzzer, Izzo’s players gathered around him at midcourt, holding up “Izzo 500” signs and posing for photos.

Eli Carter, a graduate transfer from Florida, led the Eagles with 22 points – one off his career high at BC.

The Spartans (5-0) next play Boise State (3-2) on Friday. The Broncos beat UC Irvine 71-64 in the day’s first game at cozy Titan Gym on the campus of Cal State Fullerton.

Boston College (3-1) will play Irvine (4-1) on Friday.

After hitting consecutive 3-pointers, Valentine backpedaled up the court smiling at Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green sitting courtside. Valentine converted a one-handed jam off a turnover and dashed over to high-five Green, clearly delighted by his alma mater’s theatrics.

Valentine scored 14 points in Michigan State’s 25-11 run to open the second half. The Spartans made four straight 3-pointers in the spurt, with Valentine hitting three in a row and passing to Bryn Forbes for the other.

The Eagles tried rallying from the perimeter, getting three straight 3s while closing to 80-59. It didn’t help. Valentine sparked a 10-0 burst with a basket and an assist that pushed Michigan State’s lead to 88-59.

The Spartans led 46-33 at halftime, getting 13 straight points from Valentine in a 23-13 run to close the half. He had eight points as the Spartans rattled off 10 in a row to launch the spurt that produced their largest lead of 15.

Michigan State shot 62 percent in the game’s opening minutes and built a 19-10 lead before Valentine even made his first basket. The Eagles answered with a 10-4 run to close to 23-20 before Valentine’s offensive outburst gave the Spartans a cushion.


Boston College: The Eagles were trying for their first 4-0 start since 2007. … Assistant coach Stan Heath, in his first season with the Eagles, spent five years in the same job under Izzo before leaving after the 2001 season.

Michigan State: Green played for the Spartans from 2008-12. … Michigan State evened the all-time series 3-3. … Valentine joined Green as one of only four Spartans to record a triple-double. Green had three in his career.


Boston College plays UC Irvine on Friday.

Michigan State plays Boise State on Friday.