2014 Final Four: Shabazz Napier has come full circle with Connecticut

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NEW YORK — It seems like a lifetime ago for Connecticut point guard Shabazz Napier.

He was a freshman then, a 19-year-old kid playing and winning a national championship in 2011. Three years later, he has a new coach, Kevin Ollie. His team plays in a new league, the American Athletic Conference. And he has finally forged common ground with teammates who also stuck with the program through trying times.

The landscape Napier inhabits has changed completely with only one thing still the same: He and the Huskies are in Texas again playing for a title.

The 6-foot-1 senior, a master contortionist confident he can get a shot off against any opponent, at any time, is the leading scorer in this year’s NCAA tournament with 93 points in four games and helped No. 7 seed Connecticut to wins over St. Joseph’s, Villanova, Iowa State and Michigan State for the East Regional championship.

On Saturday evening, Napier and the Huskies (30-8) will play No. 1 seed Florida, 36-2 overall and the tournament favorite, in a national semifinal at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. It is an unlikely visit for a program that is normally used to this stage. UConn is playing in its fifth Final Four since 1999 and has won three national titles, the two most recent in Texas.

That didn’t stop senior forward Tyler Olander from planting a seed in Napier’s head: If the Huskies made it this far, then they and fellow senior Niels Giffey could be the first players in program history to win multiple championships.

“At the time when he said it, I just [said] like that’s going to be real hard, it’s going to definitely be difficult,” Napier said after his team’s 60-54 win over Michigan State on Sunday at Madison Square Garden. “And for it to be right here, for us to have the opportunity to play in the Final Four, it’s a special feeling. Of course, we didn’t want to think too far ahead.”

That’s a lesson the diminutive Napier has learned well. Some figured he’d be long gone to the NBA by now. He was on the all-rookie team in the Big East Conference as a freshman and played 27 minutes during that 2011 title game win over Butler. As a sophomore, Napier was a starter, recorded the ninth triple-double in program history and stunned Villanova with a last-second 35-foot jumper to win a road game.

But that second season things fell apart. The 2011-12 Huskies couldn’t match their predecessor, bounced from the NCAA tournament in the first round. Legendary UConn coach Jim Calhoun, a three-time cancer survivor, retired before the start of the next season.

The Huskies were also banned from playing in the postseason for one year because of NCAA sanctions related to poor academics. Napier could have turned pro or transferred right then. Instead, he stuck it out when Ollie, a 13-year NBA veteran and Connecticut alum, took over.

“My sophomore year I didn’t play the way I was supposed to,” Napier said. “I wasn’t a great leader, and I felt like I owed a lot to the university. I felt like they stayed loyal to me and I wanted to stay loyal back.”

Teammates Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb left for the NBA while Roscoe Smith (UNLV) and Alex Oriakhi (Missouri) transferred. The latter three were all starters on the national title team along with star Kemba Walker, another 6-1 scoring guard in whose shadow Napier still walks.

Walker was the engine that drove UConn to that 2011 championship with his memorable scoring binge late that season (271 points, 11 postseason games). The Huskies won five games in five days at the Big East tournament that year and the winning didn’t stop until they’d cut down the nets in Houston.

And yet, the affable Walker often endured chirping from a freshman guard who would sometimes tell him how and where to shoot. That, according to Ollie, was the brash confidence Napier needed to fight his way out of the rough Mission Hill neighborhood in Roxbury, Mass., just outside of Boston.

“[Napier] still had a little rebellion in him a little bit, wanted to do it his own way,” Ollie said.

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