Kevin Duffy: Backcourt play 'beautiful' thing
Updated 12:32 am, Saturday, December 22, 2012
HARTFORD -- A year ago, Shabazz Napier would have pounced on the question: "There are some good guard tandems in the Big East -- Russ Smith and Peyton Siva come to mind -- but do you guys think you might be the best?"
The answer, without hesitation, would have been "yes."
And you know what? If Napier took the bait on that bulletin-board inquiry, he may very well have been right.
What we saw from UConn's backcourt in the first half of Friday's game versus Fordham was, as UConn coach Kevin Ollie put it, "beautiful to watch."
"We were shooting the ball particularly well, we were getting in gaps, we were making them shift side-to-side," Ollie said. "We were moving the basketball."
They were also harassing Fordham defensively, pressing subpar ballhandlers, creating steals and finishing with dunks, layups or 3-pointers.
For the second game in a row, Ryan Boatright -- all 5-foot-10 of him -- elevated, cocked the ball back and hammered down a one-handed fastbreak jam. This one, which put UConn ahead 49-23 with 2:32 to play, was set up by a Napier fullcourt heave.
As Boatright slammed it, Napier, standing on the opposite baseline, raised both fists high in the air. The Napier-to-Boatright touchdown pass, if you will, was the exclamation on a truly epic first half performance: The Huskies led by 29, had 16 assists compared to two turnovers and had already buried eight 3-pointers. Realistically, it's difficult to have a better half.
"It's between that and the Michigan State game," said Boatright, who had 20 of his 26 points and seven of his nine assists before the intermission. "I think we played awesome in the Michigan State game."
The difference is, Michigan State's a top 25 team; Fordham is, well, not quite there yet.
"We all watch film until our eyes bleed," said Fordham coach Tom Pecora, "and I think they said `hey, we can get up and get into these guys.' And they did."
Napier said it all started with Boatright, who is averaging 21 points in his last three outings. Then Omar Calhoun, so dominant against light competition and erratic in the Huskies' few tough ones, got into the act. He knocked down a trio of 3-pointers and coasted to an easy 17-point night. Even R.J. Evans, who entered the game with as many 3s as George Blaney, buried one. Shooting can be infectious. Defense can, too. And that was the case Friday evening.
"When you see a guy playing tough defense, guarding the ball like that, it's inevitable for you to do the same," Napier said. "You want to do it. If you're not going to do it, there's something wrong with you."
Originally, the plan was for Boatright -- and his innate scorer's mentality -- to play the point with Napier, the better jump shooter, operating primarily off-the-ball. For much of the year, Napier had been hoisting the bulk of the shot attempts, and he was hovering around the 20 point per game mark. But he thought UConn, as a unit, could do better. So, during the Dec. 7 matchup with Harvard, he asked to be moved back to the point.
"I feel like I'm best-suited for that, especially on this team," Napier said. "I want to take the position as point guard and get guys open shots."
Since the role reversal, Boatright is an astounding 24-for-35 from the field. Napier, conversely, has 23 assists, more than he tallied in the first eight games combined (21). UConn has 20 assists in back-to-back games, a byproduct of terrific backcourt and transition play. But it's also the byproduct of two dreadful opponents, winless Maryland Eastern Shore and Fordham, which drops to 2-9.
In that sense, it's really difficult to make bold statements about UConn at this juncture. Is this a .500 Big East team? Maybe. If they were eligible, are the Huskies an NCAA tournament team? Can they keep winning with such a marginal frontcourt?
Furthermore, is this the best backcourt in the Big East? Even better than Russ Smith and Peyton Siva?
"Um, I don't know," Napier said. "I haven't seen (Louisville) play. My competitiveness would say, of course we're better than them. But I haven't seen them play. We won't know until we actually play them."