Shabazz Napier is in the midst of a career season with the Portland Trail Blazers. The point guard is averaging career highs in points (9), minutes (21) and steals (1.2) per game, while shooting a career best at 43% from the field and 38% from three-point land. The resurgence has put his name back in the spotlight, recalling the highlight of his basketball career to this point. In a dynamic 2014 NCAA Tournament run, the then-senior guard led the underdog UConn Huskies all the way to a national title, earning Tournament Most Outstanding Player honors in the process.
Napier already had a championship under his belt entering 2014. As a freshman, he was the back-up to Kemba Walker when Walker led the team to its third national championship. Three years later, the understudy took a turn as top dog.
Napier posted a stellar regular season, leading the Huskies to a 24-7 record and 21st ranking in the AP Top 25, as well as personally being named the American Athletic Conference (AAC) player of the year.
In the AAC tournament, Shabazz lead fourth-seeded UConn to wins over the fifth-seeded Memphis Tigers and the conference favorite Cincinnati Bearcats before losing in the championship to the Louisville Cardinals. Louisville, ranked fifth in the country at the time, won the AAC automatic berth, but UConn earned an at-large bid, becoming the seventh seed in the East Regional.
Napier really turned things on in the big dance. Having averaged 14 points a game in the AAC tournament, he upped it to 21 in the NCAA tourney. In their first round match-up against 10th seeded St. Joe’s, an 89-81 victory, Shabazz posted 24 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals. He followed that up with 25 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists in a shocking 77-65 upset against the second-seeded Villanova Wildcats.
Having caught the nation’s attention with their upset of Villanova, UConn headed into the Sweet 16 with a giant target on their back against Iowa State. As they eked out an 81-76 victory over the Cyclones, Napier provided 19 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists.
After fourth-seeded Michigan State beat top seed Virginia, the Spartans and Huskies collided in the Elite 8. Current NBA players Denzel Valentine and Gary Harris, as well as former NBA player Adreian Payne were all part of that powerful Spartans squad, but Shabazz led all scorers with 25 points, chipping in 6 boards and 4 dimes to lead the Huskies to a 60-54 victory, punching their ticket to the Final Four in Arlington, TX. Napier was named the Most Outstanding Player of the East Regional.
In UConn’s first game in Arlington, against the Florida Gators, the top seed from the South Regional, Shabazz had his worst game of the tournament. He still managed to help the Huskies to a 63-53 victory, finishing with 12 points and 6 assists, and setting up a date for the championship against the Kentucky Wildcats, who featured the likes of Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein (who would miss the game due to injury) and the Harrison brothers.
Despite the fact that Kentucky was an eighth seed (the two teams combined for the highest combined seeds to reach the title game) Shabazz and the Huskies got the upper hand, completing their storybook run with a 60-54 win. ‘Bazz lead all scorers with 22 points. Napier was named tournament MOP and cemented his place in NCAA history, while the Huskies became the second highest seed to win the big dance, after eighth-seeded Villanova in 1985.
This video allows you to relive Shabazz’s big moments from both the AAC and NCAA Tournaments:
How excited does Napier make you as a Blazers fan? Given space and minutes, do you think he could return to all-around tournament form, becoming a diamond in the rough? Discuss in the comments below.