7:14 PM EST, March 9, 2013
As everyone at Gampel Pavilion watched a video tribute to a team that, on paper, had little to play for and instead gave and gave each game as if it had everything in the world to play for, Shabazz Napier began to feel the shiver of emotions.
As athletic director Warde Manuel turned over the microphone to his coach — the one in September that Manuel wanted to prove himself, the one who in March he admitted left him exhilarated — the shiver inside Napier only grew stronger. That's when the crowd began to chant, "Kevin Ollie!" That's when the crowd began to chant, "One more year!" at Napier. With that, the junior guard heard Ollie tell the fans, "It's possible!" turned to his right, saw a weeping senior R.J. Evans and, well, that was it for Napier.
Did Napier tear up because this was it for him at UConn? Did he know in his heart that he will enter the NBA Draft? No, Napier insisted, it didn't mean that at all. It had more to do with Evans, who had given an inspired pre-game speech before his last game at UConn and then went out and defended the cotton out of Bryce Cotton. It had to do with what Ollie would call "the brotherhood."
"I saw R.J. crying and it just hit me that we're not playing anymore," Napier said after UConn had defeated Providence, 63-59, in — what else? — overtime Saturday. "I was crying in the locker room. I cried when Coach Calhoun left. I'm just one of those guys. I feel passion about whatever I do. I felt so much passion about this team and I just started tearing up."
It turns out that the hardest, coolest customer of OT — 55 points in a school-record seven overtime games — is a softy.
"I'm sentimental," Napier said after UConn's final Big East game.
It's hard not to be sentimental about the 2012-2013 Huskies. Half the team jumped ship after last season. Ollie was given a five-month contract when he replaced Jim Calhoun. Academic failures not only left UConn without a NCAA Tournament bid, but without a bus ticket to the Big East tournament. And that was before the conference collapsed.
"We had so many distractions this year," Napier said. "Not one day did we use the excuse, 'Oh, well, we're not going to the tournament … oh, well, Alex Oriakhi … oh, well, Roscoe Smith."
We knew all along March 9 would be the last day. What we didn't was how this group would react. The Huskies not only won 20 games, they won hearts with an effort and verve, an unmistakable resilience that so many higher-ranked teams with everything to play for didn't approach. It carried right down to Napier on the final afternoon. After missing two games, he pulled a sneaker on his injured right foot, played 44 minutes, scored 16 points, pulled in eight rebounds. With Niels Giffey, Tyler Olander and Omar Calhoun all injured, Napier said the hell with the escalator. He limped the last flight of stairs.
As the weeks grew shorter, Ollie repeated the goal was being the "best attitude" team in America. On Saturday, he declared mission accomplished, and closed the season with one last Ollie-ism: "Through the pain, I always say, there is going to be promise."
And that brings us to next season. This season was a bridge, a remarkable bridge, but still a bridge. Manuel handed Ollie a plaque to be hung in locker room, a fitting reminder of this season. Yet, in the end, it also was a plaque that UConn presented to itself. We are left wondering where that bridge will lead.
Next season, if everyone returns, could be a huge one.
"I feel like if everyone comes back, we'll be a really great team, that we can make a run at the national championship," Deandre Daniels said.
Ryan Boatright's game is dynamic, but it also isn't nearly complete or controlled enough for the NBA. Period. NBA scouts have said Daniels is the one with the biggest upside, and we have seen why in recent weeks. Daniels has gone from a lost soul as a freshman to a go-to guy who averaged 21 points and nine rebounds the final four games. The more injuries, the more he began to dominate. Who knows what will be whispered in his ear in the coming weeks? He needs to get stronger. There's also no denying his skill. If I'm Ollie, I'm selling that if he comes back, he could be a lottery pick in 2014.
"I haven't thought about it yet, to be honest," Daniels said. "I'll sit down with my family and see what's best for me."
At the heart of this is Napier. If he left now, he could be a late second-rounder, no guaranteed money. If he left now, UConn also would not nearly be the same team next season.
"He has evolved as a young man, a special young man from his freshman year until now," Ollie said. "Shabazz used to think he can do it by himself. Now he knows he needs his teammates. When somebody is down, he's always, always there to pick them up.
"He's a leader. He's a great person. He's one of the smartest players I've been around."
Napier's stock probably was never higher than when he kept stringing overtime heroics together, but the right foot, one that needed surgery last summer, needs to heal this summer. No further surgery is needed, Napier said. On one hand, if his family needs the money now, he can strike out on his own with the notion of why risk more injury without a paycheck? On the other hand, a magical run to the Final Four, one marked by a fully healthy season, would be a great selling point.
"I haven't thought about it yet," Napier said. "I wanted to think about today."
Napier said he was mentally ready to play Saturday. He wasn't quite physically ready. He warmed it up, did some treadmill. Those two games he sat out? "They just broke me down," he said. With 35 minutes left on the clock before tipoff, Napier returned to the locker room and declared himself fit.
The first half, Napier said, he played at 75-80 percent. When he moved laterally, the pain hit. At halftime, the foot began to stiffen. The second half, he estimated he was 55-60 percent.
"But it was only for 20 more minutes," he said. "I dealt it."
Wrong, it was 25 minutes.
"I'm like, 'Oh, no, overtime.' I'm so beat up, I'm so tired," Napier said. "I haven't been practicing. Riding the [stationary] bike isn't the same."
Nor would the 2013-2014 Huskies be the same without Napier.
"I know a lot [NBA] GMs, a lot of people up there," Ollie said. "I'm going to give him feedback. Of course, he's going to have to make a decision to live with, and whatever decision he makes I'm going to support it. We'd love him to come back, but if he goes to the NBA and plays well that's good publicity for us, too.
"I know what that kid is made of. If he chooses to go to the NBA, he's going to make it. If he chooses to come back, he's going to make it."
For his part, Napier wanted to focus on Saturday, on things like how great the fans were, and raving about how Evans is one of those rare people you can count on to be a great friend for the rest of your life.
"I would think coach wants me to stay," Napier said. "I know he will call me to his office soon and we'll talk about that, but right now I want to be happy for my teammates and go to this little get-together R.J.'s parents are having."
Napier said this team fit this season, the players so resentful of not getting into the tournament that they would never give in. And they would prove it a final time.
"Hopefully, they stay together," Ollie said, "because the future is so bright."
They all should come back to take a run at a national title.
Yeah, it's possible.
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