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Kevin Duffy: Napier in mix for Big East player of year

Published 6:51 pm, Sunday, February 10, 2013

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  • Connecticut's Shabazz Napier (13) drives to the basket between Seton Hall's Tom Maayan and Aaron Cosby, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013, in Newark, N.J. Connecticut won 78-67. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun) Photo: Bill Kostroun, Associated Press / FR51951 AP

    Connecticut's Shabazz Napier (13) drives to the basket between Seton Hall's Tom Maayan and Aaron Cosby, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013, in Newark, N.J. Connecticut won 78-67. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

    Photo: Bill Kostroun, Associated Press

 

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NEWARK, N.J. -- The evolution of Shabazz Napier, as Kevin Ollie describes it, doesn't involve any major transformation.

"He's just understanding leadership; he's understanding he has to talk to teammates," Ollie said. "He's understanding he has to pat them on the butt when they need it and that he has to kick them sometimes." Naturally, he's understanding when he needs to wrestle them, too.

Early in UConn's five-hour journey from Storrs to Newark, the team bus got stuck as it picked up coaches from a Hartford hotel. A sleeping Napier awoke to find his teammates outside. From there, the timeline gets a little fuzzy: An attempt to push the bus failed--"we looked at each other and were like `we need to get in the weight room,'" Napier cracked -- snowballs were thrown and, at some point, Napier snuck up on Omar Calhoun and wrestled him to the ground.

"He tried to slam me, but it wasn't happening," Napier said. "I had to teach the freshman a little bit."

After a long bus ride and a short night's sleep, Napier taught Seton Hall the same lesson he's delivered to nine other Big East opponents. He turned in another brilliant performance -- 22 effortless points, 8-of-12 shooting from the field, nine assists (just missing the double-double that has evaded every UConn player this season) and six steals -- and staked his claim in a wide-open Big East Player of the Year race.

The most telling line came from Ollie: "Without him, I don't know where we'd be at."

Not at 6-4 in the league, which puts the Huskies in the mix with Pittsburgh, St. John's, Notre Dame and Louisville, all of whom also have four losses. In previous years, the Big East was America's almighty conference, which meant the Player of the Year typically went to the stud of the league's powerhouse: Caron Butler and Brandin Knight in 2002, Emeka Okafor in 2004, Randy Foye in 2006, Hasheem Thabeet and DeJuan Blair in 2009, Wesley Johnson in 2010.

There is no powerhouse this season, and there is no frontrunner for the award. In today's Big East, there are a bunch of good players on a slew of average teams. We saw two at the Prudential Center Sunday afternoon: Napier and Seton Hall's Fuquan Edwin, a gangly 6-foot-6 gunner who scored 10 points in 2:34, jumpstarting a 16-0 Pirates run that gave them a brief lead.

"He's especially great on the break," Ollie said. "He's probably the best defender, the best steal guy in the Big East."

Great as he is, Edwin is not a Player of the Year candidate. Maybe if he played for Notre Dame, but not Seton Hall, a free-falling 2-9 in the league. Because the award can't go to someone on a subpar team, you can also cross off Providence's Bryce Cotton (the Big East leader with 20.9 points per game).

Halfway through the conference schedule, let's meet the legitimate candidates: In one corner, we have Vander Blue, a nominee almost by default. Marquette is the leader at 8-2, and Blue is its top scorer at 15 points per contest.

Syracuse, the probable favorite to win the regular season title, has a trio of stellar guys: Michael Carter-Williams leads the NCAA in assists (8.5 per game), the 6-foot-8 C.J. Fair is always a matchup problem and Brandon Triche, who paces the Orange with 14.5 points per game, provides that vital veteran presence.

Then, in the other corner, we have the versatile Otto Porter Jr., tops on Georgetown in points (15), rebounds (8), steals (1.8) and 3-point percentage (45.5). And there's Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick, who at 18.2 points per game, may very well be the league's purest scorer. But the Bearcats are slumping, and he's 3-for-17 from beyond the arc in two losses this past week.

Which brings us to Notre Dame's Jack Cooley, who has a shot at surpassing the single-season double-double total (26) posted by Harangody, his mentor/possible twin brother. And you can't rule out Notre Dame's point guard, Jerian Grant, the man of 12 points in 44 seconds Saturday night.

Three weeks ago, the runaway favorite was Louisville's Russ Smith, but the Cardinals have fallen into that four-loss pack, and Smith is now under 40 percent from the field on the season. He also missed five game-tying or game-winning shots Saturday night, and four of them were pretty hilarious. As gifted a player as Smith is, he must drive Rick Pitino insane.

Finally, in the far corner, there's Napier, capable of causing some headache for Ollie -- like when he refuses to shoot in the first half -- but still far and away the team's most valuable asset.

"In the first half you can tell he's trying to facilitate, just like the St. John's game, and then it's like `alright, it's time to go,'" said UConn senior R.J. Evans.

Against Seton Hall, a Napier 3-pointer -- his first open look -- extended UConn's lead to 51-46. A no-look pass to DeAndre Daniels ballooned it to seven, a bank shot made it eight and then a pull-up at the elbow pushed it to 10. Later, Napier's dish off-the-glass to Ryan Boatright put the Huskies ahead 70-54.

"I think he has the ability to be great," Ollie said. "Now is he going to continue to push and push and push and be consistent in that effort? He's been doing it the whole year."

The lesson: If you take Napier off UConn and replace him with an average point guard, the Huskies are hanging out with Seton Hall and DePaul at the bottom of the standings. If you replace Porter or Kilpatrick with an average player, it's highly doubtful that Cincinnati and Georgetown slide to DePaul's dark depths. Same goes for Russ Smith and any of Syracuse's Big Three. When put like that, Napier doesn't only have a legitimate case -- he has a compelling one.

Ah, but it's not so easy. The criteria for the award have always been unclear. It could simply be the best player on the best team, in which case Russ Smith would probably take it. It could be for consistency or seniority (which is lame), making Cooley or Triche the choice. Or it could go to Vander Blue if Marquette keeps winning.

If we want to be totally logical, though, there is an alternative option: All of the candidates in the snow for a Big East wrestlemania. A Royal Rumble, if you will. No shots to the groin. No snowballs to the face. No chokeslams on the pavement. Last guy standing takes it.

Sounds fair, doesn't it?

kduffy@newstimes.com; @KevinRDuffy