Shabazz Napier and University of Connecticut teammate Niels Giffey could have packed their bags and fled, found a safe harbor at another school, landed somewhere unaffected by APR issues and a postseason ban. The two could be making their fourth trip to The Dance instead of their third. Perhaps they could be heading into this NCAA Tournament with legitimate title aspirations instead of as a seventh-seed striving to regain its elite air.
In an era where college players transfer in great numbers, some for legit reasons and some because the wind changed direction, Napier and Giffey remained true to the place where they won the 2011 national championship as freshmen reserves. They declined the opportunity to go elsewhere and play right away after coach Jim Calhoun’s sudden retirement, after the Huskies were banned from last season’s tournament for failing to meet mandated academic standards. Their hearts belonged to UConn even though it meant averting their eyes as last year’s NCAAs unfolded.
“I didn’t watch the tournament,” said Napier, this year’s American Athletic Conference Player of the Year. “I was watching other things. I didn’t really think about watching the tournament. It definitely sucked because I wasn’t a part of it, but it fueled a lot of motivation and hunger to get to where we’re at now. Not only for myself, the whole team took that as a sign of staying hungry.”
“They kept this university afloat when everybody else was jumping off the bandwagon,” Huskies coach Kevin Ollie said. “I appreciate Shabazz. I appreciate my seniors. And I appreciate everybody having that same mindset, that we’re champions.”
“My guys stayed loyal. We thought we’d be an NCAA Tournament team last year, and now we just took over that same mindset on into this year.”
UConn has won three national championships over the last 15 years, more than any school. Yet the Huskies (28-8) come into this evening’s second-round game against Saint Joseph’s (24-9) seeking their first postseason victory since their 53-41 conquest of Butler in the 2011 title game. Two years ago they were beaten by Iowa State right out of the gate. Last year they sat idle.
“I think we’re still facing the brand,” said Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli. “And I’m delighted that we’re facing the brand that is UConn because when the name popped up for our team, our players in their lifetime have seen UConn hang three banners.
“I just have to remind our guys that Kemba Walker is not playing, and Rudy Gay is not playing, and Ray Allen is not playing, and Emeka Okafor is not playing. They have a whole other cast of players who are of that ilk.”
Napier, a New England native and finalist for four national awards, has been their glue. He averages team highs of 17.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists. No player has led the Huskies in all three categories since the school began keeping assist records in 1969-70. He persevered through tough times. “I wouldn’t want to be with any other team,” Napier said. “I think this team can do special things. We just got to work hard and never give up. We got to show up and just play as hungry as we wanted to play last year when we couldn’t play.”
Imagine what a mental mind game that was, playing out the season knowing that for better or worse there was no where to go, knowing that all you’re playing for is pride and long-term improvement.
“It was definitely hard because you definitely went through a lot of hard times with people you care about,” Napier said. “When you do that, you form like a real tight knit and guys just willing to give up themselves for the team. And I think that’s what happened. Guys were willing to get in the gym every day. Guys willing to be in the weight room every single day, waiting for their opportunity, and it’s here now. We worked so hard for this for two years now. We got to come out real hungry.”
“We’ve been through the whole process, so we definitely benefit from that,” said Giffey, a 6-7 swingman. “We’re going to pass that on to everybody who hasn’t been here, just showing them how focused you have to be on what you got to do on the court.”