No. 3-seed Iowa State Cyclones vs. No. 7-seed UConn Huskies
A year ago at this time the Connecticut Huskies were sitting at home, while other teams of their ilk were competing in college basketball’s Big Dance. Greatness always has a price and for Jim Calhoun’s program – probably the dopest rags to riches job a coach has ever done with a program in college basketball history—two years after climbing college basketball’s Mt. Everest, the University of Connecticut men's basketball squad wasn’t allowed to compete for the 2013 national championship, after the NCAA denied the school's appeal of a postseason ban based on its athletes' academic performance. The Huskies were ordered to sit out the tourney because of its past players' sub-par academic performance rate.
With the departure of King Kemba to the NBA in 2011, UConn probably wasn’t equipped to be champs, but as the Huskies and lead guard Shabazz Napier prepare for its Sweet 16 matchup against a tough Iowa State team on Friday night, the emptiness of last March is a motivating factor in UConn’s current tourney hunger and an experience Napier – the MVP of this March Madness shootout so far – can’t forget soon enough. In fact, he didn’t even watch the tournament last season.
“Honestly guys, I didn’t watch one game, Shabazz told reporters at a press conference at Madison Square Garden on Thursday. “I was more into watching River monsters and stuff like that. I didn’t want to watch because I thought I’d be aggravated and annoyed. I just really watched certain TV shows. Discovery channel mostly…I love fishing. I could catch the smallest fish and think it’s the biggest fish ever.”
Now that makes total sense. The Lil’ General Napier, who’s numbers have improved each year since playing all 41 games as Walker’s highly-touted freshman backup en route to the National Ch’ip, has blossomed into a dynamic floor general – the biggest fish of all guards right now.
Fred Hoiberg’s Iowa State Cyclones will be another huge test for UConn who rank 58th in the country in offensive efficiency. Napier has been carrying the load like a true "G" so far, pumping in 49 points in two tournament games, including 25 in as many minutes in the Huskies' upset win over Villanova. It’s no mystery that the crafty guard has to get between 25-30 numbers for UConn to outscore multi-dimensional pro prospect Deandre Kane and a Cyclones team that ranks much-higher (10th) in the nation in offensive efficiency. The Cyclones are going to get at it and keep that fast-breaking, free-wheeling pace. The Huskies have to be careful not to get into a shootout.
“Kane is a great player, but the problem with them is everybody,” Napier warned. “He’s definitely their motor and keeps them going. We just have to do our best to contain him. They shoot and make a lot of threes. We have to do our best to dictate the tempo.”
There’s talent on both sides, but basketball fans can’t help but get captivated by Napier and his backcourt mate Ryan Boatwright. Guards are always the darlings of March Madness and UConn’s close proximity to NYC makes a game at MSG a home game for the squad from Storrs, Conn. The position of guard is hallowed territory at UConn. From Tate George to Rip Hamilton to Ray Allen to Ben Gordon and Taliek Brown, guards have been akin to Gods under the reign of Jim Calhoun.
Napier can be considered the first “superstar guard” in the Kevin Ollie coaching era. This is Ollie’s first tourney run since assuming the reigns from Calhoun in the 2012-13 season. Ollie, a solid guard in his own right during his days running the point at UConn and 13-years in the NBA, credits the guts and devotion of Napier and other players, who contemplated transferring after Calhoun retired but stayed. “We felt we owed it to the school to fulfill our commitments and stick with them," Napier said.
Said Ollie: “When everybody was saying the school and the program's not going to make it, those kids dug their heels in,” and said, ‘we are going to make it.’
Igging Iowa State would be the first signature win for Ollie and redemption for the players who stuck it out when they could have abandoned ship. “If it wasn’t for Shabazz and our seniors saying, ‘Ok I’m not going to leave, I’m going to stick it out and stay loyal… I know coach (Calhoun) is retired and I know we’re going to a new conference, but UConn is still on our chest and we’re going to keep believing’…and that’s what made it.”
And so far in this tourney Napier has that S on his chest, and it doesn’t stand for Shabazz. He’s playing for multi-layered STAKES. This is a huge season in UConn history. A Final Four run forces critics to consider the transition of leadership from Calhoun to Ollie a success. With a win, the Huskies can also avenge a disappointing loss they suffered to Iowa State in the NCAA Tournament during Calhoun’s last season at the helm.
There is one nugget, however, that may render all of this talk about a UConn run and fast return to glory meaningless. Fate. Ollie and Hoiberg are actually good friends and Ollie admitted that he still owes Hoiberg a major favor. If Ollie wins, he can one-up his long-time buddy, who Ollie says he met in high school, while they were both on a recruiting visit to Arizona.
“Neither one of us wound up going to Arizona,” Ollie said. “Then years later I had a chance to have him as a teammate with the Chicago Bulls. Just one of the greatest teammates I’ve ever been around. Very personable…But once you get between those lines you pretty much don’t have any friends and you always want your university to come out on top.”
That’s all good, but the basketball gods might think it’s time for Ollie to pay it forward.
“He retired a little earlier than I did,” Ollie continued. “Then he became the assistant general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves. I was at the end of my career and he took a chance on a 37-year-old point guard and signed me for one year and I thank him for that also.”
Napier is probably thinking, ‘Don’t knock my hustle. It’s my time to shine.’
Well the senior, who is also trying to advance his draft stock—similar to how Kemba did with his March magic—is going to have to ball hot-like-the-devil to help Ollie reach his first Elite Eight. He’s not putting it all on his shoulders though. Napier sitting for almost 12:00 minutes against Villanova was proof that UConn is more than just a one man show.
“I could never repeat the things that Kemba did on the court,” Napier said when TSL asked him about what he learned from Walker three season ago, that can help him during his final run. “I don’t think anyone can repeat that. The biggest thing I learned from him was his leadership, intangibles, his character on and off the court. His ability to bring guys together and get them going, and have them understands that he’s not just doing this by himself. We’re doing this together. I can’t duplicate what he did on the court all I can do is play to my best abilities. I’m not going to be out there having a show. I may get recognized for a lot of things but I couldn’t do what I do if these guys weren’t behind me playing their parts.”
Louisville holds the American Athletic Conference crown, but in the upcoming years there will be constant battles for conference sheriff. The Huskies can start by throwing the cuffs on a Big 12 team in Iowa State, and if history is any indication, there’s no better time than the postseason for UConn to try and usurp the throne.
No.1-seed Virginia vs. No. 4-seed Michigan State
Tom Izzo goes to the Final Four as often as my granddad used to take leaks at the height of his prostate troubles. March Madness hit and people naturally gravitated to the Spartan green when filling out their NCAA brackets. History tells you that rolling with the Greenbacks is not a bad way to play your brackets. Izzo has two c’hips (2000 and 2009) and six Final Four appearances under his belt. A realist says, the No. 4 seeding should be a red flag. It should tell you that MSU is flawed and to favor them against No. 1 seed Virginia – a disrespected one seed with added incentive to bust Michigan State down to its very last compound – is risky business.
Just peep the facts: Only one No. 4 seed since 1985 has won the national title (Arizona, 1997). Only three have reached the final game. Now, if there is a team to do it, it’s MSU because they bucked history last season to come within a game of cutting down the nets. That Izzo March mystique can’t just be a coincidence, but the past two seasons have been successful, but hardly epic. The Sweet 16 has spelled doom for the Spartans the past two years. In 2012 top-seeded Michigan State only mustered 44 points in a loss to eventual-champion and No. 4-seeded Louisville. Last year the Spartans were neck-and-neck with Duke, before the Blue Devils pulled away for an easy 10-point W. The Cavs are 30-6 this season and since hitting an early season oil slick that included losses to Wisconsin, Green Bay and Tennessee, they’ve balled-out and deserve some credit.
Michigan State senior guard Keith Appling knows the pressures that his class is facing. To not make one single Final Four in a full college career would be almost unheard of to Spartans fans. Appling says his team will draw off the historical significance of playing in “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”
"Words can’t even explain all of the great players that performed here, Appling said, while sitting down at his locker at MSG eating BBQ wings and fruits. “It’s the Mecca of basketball still, and we’re going to make the most of our opportunity to play here.”
He’ll also be the first to tell you not to take Virginia lightly.
“Virginia doesn’t make many mistakes,” Appling cautioned. “They’re great on the defensive end, so we will have to execute our offense sharply to get baskets.”