Kevin Duffy: UConn's Napier makes case for top point guard
Updated 11:42 am, Sunday, January 13, 2013
SOUTH BEND, IND. -- The signature moment of Kevin Ollie's second signature win was an alley-oop from Shabazz Napier to the 5-foot-10 Ryan Boatright, a Sportscenter-worthy play that gave UConn a four-point edge.
A forgettable moment took place about 2 1/2 hours prior: Every Husky from Boatright to R.J. Evans to walk-on Dave Vandal threw it down in layup lines. Boatright, so springy and electrifying, hung on the rim. Then Napier gave it a try, tossing the ball off the backboard and attempting a one-handed jam of his own.
He didn't quite get there.
"I can dunk," Napier insisted after UConn's 65-58 upset over No. 17 Notre Dame. "It's just not made for me. I'd rather get the easy layup."
Boatright laughed and provided a simpler explanation.
"He can," the sophomore guard quipped, "but it has to be a good day, man."
And Saturday, yet again, was a pretty nice day for Napier -- even if he didn't make the ESPN highlights.
The story of UConn's triumph in South Bend -- its first true road victory of the year -- will be Tyler Olander, who turned in a career performance (16 points on 8-for-9 shooting and seven rebounds) against one of the league's top players.
"(Jack) Cooley is a big-time matchup," said UConn coach Kevin Ollie. "But I thought it was a standstill today."
Closer examination, though, shows that Olander got rolling with Cooley on the bench (he averages only 28 minutes per game). Ollie and Napier recognized a mismatch inside, and for the first time this season, UConn made a concerted effort to dump the ball in the post. So Napier, whose cool demeanor and hot shooting kept UConn afloat, deferred to the big fella.
"And that's what a good point guard does," Ollie said. "He's a facilitator when we need it, and then he's a scorer out of necessity. That's a great point guard for us."
The question is, how great is he? The committee responsible for the Bob Cousy Award, annually given to the nation's top point guard, did not include Napier among the 20 finalists -- an irresponsible, if not outrageous, omission that deserves criticism. And Napier, good for his share of bulletin board material a year ago, must be taking media lessons from Ollie.
"Ever since I was a little kid, I never really cared about individual awards," he said. "If all you have is individual awards, that means you're not much of a team player."
Though he won't say it, the case for Napier as the nation's top point guard is as compelling as virtually anyone's: Michigan's Trey Burke, a regular 18-point, 7-assist contributor for the nation's new No. 1 team (if the Wolverines defeat Ohio State Sunday), may very well win the award. Missouri's Phil Pressey, an AAU buddy of Alex Oriakhi's, has been fairly "ImPresseyve," too. He went for 19 points and 19 helpers in a loss to UCLA. Even though he's shooting 36 percent from the field, we'll call him the runner-up to Burke. And then we'll throw in Virginia Tech's Erick Greene, the country's leading scorer at 24.6 points per clip.
After that, it's hard to peg anyone clearly ahead of Napier. Maybe Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse's lanky 6-foot-6 floor general who averages close to 10 assists. Maybe Oklahoma's State's Marcus Smart, a 6-4, 225-pound stat sheet-filling freshman. How about another high-major who made the cut -- Michigan State's Keith Appling?
Didn't he and Napier play against one another in Germany? And didn't Napier score 25 points in a UConn win?
Keep going down the list: Arizona's Mark Lyons (14.5 points, 3.2 assists), Louisville's Peyton Siva (11.5 points, 6.1 assists), Gonzaga's Kevin Pangos (12.4 points, 3.6 assists), Duke's Quinn Cook (11.4 points, 6.1 assists). Statistically, Napier trumps them. He can dominate with 29 points (vs. Marquette) or be equally effective with six points, seven rebounds, nine assists and four steals versus Harvard.
Let's take it a step further: Napier has made the case as one of the nation's 20 most valuable players regardless of position. He's been as tough and consistent this year as he was thin-skinned and erratic a season ago. In turn, so has UConn.
Saturday was merely another example: Olander's emergence wouldn't have mattered if it weren't for Napier, who calmly drilled contested shots in pressure moments. Down 16-10, he hit a 3-pointer. Then another down 26-23, and then another -- this one a deep, deep spot-up in transition -- to even it at 29.
"He caught me a couple of times," Ollie said. "It was like `bad shot' and then I'd start clapping."
When Omar Calhoun settled for an early 3 in the corner, Napier clapped -- only to get the freshman's attention -- and shouted "Attack the basket!" Calhoun listened, and his baseline drive dump-off to Niels Giffey cut into Notre Dame's 26-18 lead, its largest of the afternoon.
Back-and-forth through the second half -- Napier alternating between scorer (his foul-line jumper gave UConn a 48-46 lead) and set-up man -- the Huskies didn't find breathing room until the backdoor lob to Boatright, which he snatched with two hands and flushed.
That makes two highlight dunks in two games for Boatright and zero in three years for Napier. It's coming, though. He promises.
"If I get a fast break, I'm going to dunk one for everybody," Napier said, proceeding to list the conditions. "If I get a breakaway and my legs are under me and I'm not tired, I'll get a dunk. That's my goal."
Why not? At this point, he's done everything else.