For UCONN Huskies senior Shabazz Napier, the decision to stay in school is paying dividends. The 22-year-old guard has carried his team to the Final Four at a time when basketball players finishing out their college careers usually means a future in the NBA is out of the equation. Napier, however, is one of just a handful of exceptions to that rule this season and, on a lot of levels, his choice has been the right one.
Napier, the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, is slated to graduate in the spring after performing as well in the classroom—He has made the dean’s list and athletic director’s academic honor roll—as he has on the court.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with staying four years,” Napier said in an interview with the New York Times. “A lot of guys think there is because I guess you can lose money that way. I just feel like the more you understand that education’s going to be key in your life, the more you mature.”
That maturity has enabled Napier to will his Huskies to college basketball’s biggest stage against serious odds. After running through the first two-thirds of its nonconference schedule unblemished, including a buzzer-beating one-point victory over Florida orchestrated by Shabazz himself, Connecticut suffered its first loss to Stanford. The Huskies would then perform fairly consistently in AAC play after dropping their first two league games, finishing in third place with a conference mark of 12-6. But three losses to AAC regular season and tournament champion Louisville, including once in the conference championship game, were crushing.
Entering the NCAA Tournament as a seven seed was also disconcerting, but it seemed to fuel Napier and the Huskies. Particularly Napier, who has scored or assisted on 45 percent of his team’s points and is averaging 23.25 ppg in four tournament games. And the 6-1 slasher is more than happy to put his NBA future on hold, something he draws as much praise for as his basketball prowess. Former Georgetown coach John Thompson hopes Napier’s decision to stay in school sets a precedent.
“I understand that some kids have to leave college because of the money when they definitely aren’t ready to leave and that’s an unfortunate situation,” Thompson said in an interview. “So you’re always extremely glad to see it work out for a kid that does stay because then you can cite that to other kids.”
Above any other of Napier’s myriad talents, NBA scouts are most impressed by his inability to be rattled. According to NBA draft analysis, his biggest strength is his proclivity for raising his game against great opposition. “Napier is a gamer. He has a knack for making great plays in big games,” the draft profile states. “He’s fearless, confident and plays with a swagger that says he truly believes in himself.”
UCONN will face top-ranked Florida in the first national semifinal Saturday in a rematch of a barnburner the two played early on in the regular season. The Huskies escaped with a narrow 65-64 victory, but the game was a back and forth heavyweight fight with ten lead changes and tons of ebb and flow that could have gone either way. The only difference this time is the stakes, and they could not be any higher.
Commentary by Rick Sarlat