Shabazz Napier’s Coming Of Age: When Madison Square Garden Staged A Hoops Bar Mitzvah 

The Final Four is rife with red herrings who’ve distracted us from the man behind the curtain on our rocky road to the Final Four. Behind curtain No. 1 is Wisconsin, the Big Ten contender overlooked throughout the season. However, before their loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament, Wisconsin was being considered a target for one of the final No. 1 seeds. Their pre-tournament resume included wins over a slew of conference champions including Green Bay, Eastern Kentucky Saint Louis, Iowa, Michigan State, Michigan and hold the distinction of holding Virginia to 38 points in a win and scoring 95 in a victory over Illinois. Wisconsin's chameleons can change their skin at a moment's notice.

Florida is the team that was relegated to second-tier status behind Syracuse and Arizona for most of the season. They entered the tournament as the No. 1 team in America, but haven't been threatened since escaping the SEC Championship Game with a one-point victory over Kentucky. Then, there’s UConn.

The Huskies East Regional win was reparations for Madison Square Gardeners who’ve watched their Knicks aimlessly stumble into the lottery this season. The Huskies represent a stable organization New Yorkers only wish they could replicate.

Jim Calhoun is living the ideal scenario for how Phil Jackson’s Knicks presidency will play out. With an office situated near head coach Kevin Ollie’s and his own handpicked successor stalking the sidelines, Calhoun’s presence is still felt. Yet, he's not overbearing and nobody is begging him to return to the sidelines. Niels Giffey hugged Calhoun and Ryan Boatright found him while he was filming an interview with Andy Katz, but this is Ollie’s team now.

"Coach [Ollie] has been in the NBA a lot of years," point guard Shabazz Napier genuflected afterwards. "And his ideas on how to run an offense come from that. A lot of things come from Coach Calhoun, too. You intertwine those two things, and he's just putting us in great positions to show what we have."

When Ollie got the job, I jokingly used to nickname him Prince Ollie to King Calhoun. Calhoun is still the grand poobah, but Ollie has quickly lifted the program from the depths of a postseason ban and obscurity as a player, most known for his role as a contributor on the ’01 Philadelphia 76ers team that punched the Lakers in the mouth during the 2001 NBA Finals.

The latent fear is that Ollie’s success is an aberration in the form of Bob Knight’s coaching scion Mike Davis burning out at Indiana after finishing up the 2002 season as the national runner-up. Nonetheless, Prince Ollie and his Thieves stole the East regional away from the East’s top seeds.

“These kids would follow him across the desert for a drink of water,” Calhoun said in his thick Boston accent while proudly beaming amid the celebration on Sunday afternoon.

The only individual within UConn’s athletic department who faced larger expectations as the successor to a legend was Shabazz Napier. Napier, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander were the trio of seniors who stuck around during the exodus that occurred after the NCAA allowed them to transfer immediately because of the postseason ban related to Academic Progress Rate penalties.

Last year, there was a consensus opinion that Trey Burke was the world champion of amateur point guards. This season, a battle royale erupted over top dog. During a year in which Marcus Smart, Tyler Ennis, Scottie Wilbekin, Marcus Paige and Marathon Man Bryce Cotton ran their offenses with spectacular efficiency, Napier became a complete player behind the curtain for the Huskies; leading the team in points, rebounds, assists, three-pointers, free throws and steals.

As we were all collecting Z's on Shabazz, he became the second point guard UConn history to land on the 1,300-point, 500-assist, 400-rebound career plateau. He also flayed defenses in high screen pick and roll situations better than anyone in the country and was more skilled than Jason Statham steering through traffic.

As fate would have it, the Selection Committee placed UConn as a No. 7 seed in the East which would be decided in Madison Square Garden. It’s hard to recall the last time the Tournament Committee gift wrapped a home court advantage to a seven seed. Michigan State's buzzsaw was a UConn crowd that was analogous to the Seatle Seahawks 12th man.

UConn may not be a New York state institution, but its athletic program has stacked its rosters by using the Big Apple as a pipeline. Instead, UConn and Syracuse are Bernie Mac’s “sister’s kids.” They’re not biologically New York City’s offspring, but it’s simply a formality. Whereas St. Johns was the de facto college basketball program the five boroughs Yorkers cheered for, UConn has filled that void.

Throughout the weekend, Napier continuously referred to Madison Square Garden as the Huskies third home behind the Storrs campus and Hartford, Connecticut. Calhoun was even more sanguine.

“I always thought the Boston Garden was the mecca until I got to Madison Square Garden,” Calhoun said before the NCAA Tournament while reminiscing about the defunct Big East Tournament of yesteryear. “Then I realized that was truly the college mecca.”

With the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 and Elite 8 returning to the renovated Madison Square Garden for the first time since 1961, Napier was given an opportunity to operate on Michigan State and Iowa State’s defenses underneath Broadway’s marquee lights.

Madison Square Garden is a temple of tranquility for UConn basketball. Rip Hamilton opined that the Tournament is where boys become men. Kentucky superfan Drake and Lord of the Flies, John Calipari, can attest to that fact.

The weekend felt like a basketball bar mitzvah where the baby-faced Napier ascended to basketball manhood in the same arena Walker began his rise three years ago. Napier has seemingly been inspired by the spirit of Kemba Walker in the same fashion Kadeem Harrison’s memory possessed Marlon Wayans en route to the Washington Huskies’ fictional '97 NCAA championship.

The most recent watershed moment for UConn in the Garden was Kemba Walker’s crossover, step back move on mismatched, chalk-outlined Pittsburgh center Gary McGhee to win the Big East Conference Tournament propelling the 2011 squad towards a national championship after previously resting on the bubble. Napier was a freshman on that team and in his sophomore year, he was burdened with expectations of following up that act.

Considerable progress was apparent during his junior season, but went unheralded as UConn was banished from participating in postseason games including the Big East Tournament.

Despite all of his accomplishments this year Napier will be judged on the Kemba scale by his performance in the NCAA Tournament. This weekend, he was magical enough to earn his new nickname as the Wizard of Shabazz.

Against the bigger DeAndre Kane, Napier began hitting bullseyes from behind the arc, used his quickness to streak to the hoop and contort his body or drain it from the deep if they dropped underneath the pick and roll.

In Sunday’s Big East Regional final, Keith Appling was granted a similar approval for infamy credentials when his injured right wrist grazed Napier in an aggressive attempt to defend a three-point attempt with 30 seconds left in what was a two point gme. In 2010, Appling scored 49 points in his final high school game, a Michigan state championship game record. However, a wrist injury to his shooting hand resulted in his scoring average bottoming out during the tournament.

Unfortunately, in addition to getting blanked in his Sparty career finale, Appling also watched a healthier point guard peer catapult his program over the field into their second Final Four in four years. While Appling inconspicuously stalked the bowels of the Garden with his light gray Spartans hoodie stretched over his head, Napier was being mobbed by a gaggle of reporters.

Napier calmly hit all three aforementioned free throws. During the tournament UConn has been blazing from behind the arc and scorching at the free throw line.  Napier swished 25 of 27. As a team, they’ve made 81 of 92 attempts from the charity stripe.

On Saturday, Napier will run up against the Florida Gators, who are still grinding their teeth about Napier’s buzzer beater off of his own miss on Dec. 2 in what would be their final loss of the season to date. Florida actually played claustrophobic defense, but destiny favored Napier.

The rematch will be staged in Dallas, which is Ollie’s biological hometown. Crenshaw is where Ollie was molded, but UConn became Ollie’s third home.  Ollie brought his team to the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Center on January 2nd before a matchup against his NBA dad Larry Brown and the SMU Mustangs. It's not a coincidence that it also happens to be the site of next week's Final Four. The Huskies went 0-2 against SMU this season. Auspiciously enough, UConn is winning the big picture battle as they pack for Dallas while SMU preps for the NIT in UConn’s "third home."

Texas has been good to UConn twice before as the site of its two most recent men’s national championships. Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor stormed through San Antonio and Kemba launched into orbit over Houston. Cowboy Stadium may be the site of UConn’s climactic culmination to a sublime season, but their blood is on the Madison Square Garden floor. Literally, midway through the second half, Napier surprised Gary Harris for what appeared to be a clean strip, but was called for a foul from the officials’ perspective. Ironically, Napier is the one who wound up curled on the floor while blood dripped from his nose onto the Garden’s playing surface after Gary Harris swiped at the loose ball.

Madison Square Garden and UConn are blood brothers now. Ollie is the head of the family and Napier took his seat as the city’s favorite adopted basketball son.

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