It takes a superstar in basketball. Two is better. Three is best. But one still has to stand out. And that means more than a guy who can fly. So many of the things we’re taught about the game, about what’s supposed to be the right way, about old school, don’t really apply much in the biggest moments at the highest level.
Unlike in any other sport, they can all be crushed and overwhelmed by one guy. This time, it was Shabazz Napier, Connecticut’s 6-foot-1 guard and best scorer, rebounder, passer, stealer, and probably anything else you can think of, too.
UConn, a No. 7 seed, was the worst of the four teams to reach New York in the East Regional this weekend. But it has the best player, so it’s the one to advance to the Final Four after beating Michigan State 60-54.
UConn and Madison Square Garden have a special relationship, with its past and Big East tournament title games here. (Also, a six-overtime loss.) But UConn fans were all thinking about Kemba Walker sinking the big shot here three years ago and leading the Huskies on another incredible run.
Napier has said over and over that he isn’t Walker, that he’ll never accomplish what Walker did, that this team wants its own identity.
Sorry, but you can’t separate it out that way. His identity will weave right in with that of UConn basketball history. There’s a reason these things can repeat themselves, as if it’s in the blood of a program and its fans, players, hardwood. Losing repeats itself through history, too. Ask the Chicago Cubs.
When the game was over, UConn’s Omar Calhoun sat in front of his locker stall with a small piece of the net tied to his East Regional champions hat. He said he climbed the ladder to cut down that net and had a flashback to UConn past, to seeing Walker cut down the net.
And it hit him right there, and he couldn’t believe it: He was the one on that ladder now.
Napier got him there. Napier and UConn’s defense.
Michigan State had the more-skilled collection of top players. The problem is that it takes more than that to stand out the way you have to. The Spartans don’t have anyone who actually leads the team.
In the Sweet 16 against Virginia, it was Branden Dawson. Virginia was the team that does everything right, plays defense, plays together. Be honest: You can’t name one player on Virginia’s team. The funny thing is that Virginia had been given the New York Knicks locker room, and earlier in the week, Virginia’s Akil Mitchell told me he had immediately run to what he (mistakenly) thought was Carmelo Anthony’s locker to drop his stuff there.
Even Mitchell, the model of teamwork, wanted to be like Anthony, the model of, well, not teamwork. Still, Mitchell also said you don’t really need a superstar to win a championship. It was supposed to be testimony to things being done right.
Then Dawson beat the Virginia team.
I’ve overstated a little. Defense still matters. And other players can fill little roles until it’s time for the superstar to take over. UConn out-toughed Michigan State. Three UConn players told me Saturday that Dawson is a monster on the court and that they weren’t sure how they were going to stop him.
I barely even remember seeing Dawson during the game. He said afterward that there were so many turnovers he didn’t get the ball much. The truth is, he couldn’t get to the basket. UConn wouldn’t let him, or let Adreian Payne, get anywhere near it.
Dawson ended up with five points. He looked overwhelmed all by himself; UConn’s defense only made things worse. He isn’t the player he appeared to be against Virginia.
And while it’s impressive seeing Payne, at 6-10, draining 3-pointers, that was also the problem. He needed to be able to get inside. You have to own that turf, or at least some of it. Michigan State couldn’t even see it.
UConn planted a flag.
The game was decided with 31 seconds left. Michigan State was down by two, and Napier had the ball. Michigan State’s Keith Appling fouled him on a 3-pointer. Napier made all three free throws, and it was over.
It was such an uncharacteristic mistake for a Tom Izzo-coached team. And as a result, Michigan State’s seniors will leave without ever having played in the Final Four. They are the first seniors Izzo has recruited there who can say that.
Napier, who had 25 points, said you have to believe in yourself, that someone has to be the one to make the big shots.
Inevitably, every team-first team is going to have that moment when it needs someone to pull it out of trouble. Napier is the best player, but also the face, the voice of the team. He’s the one who made news this weekend when he told me he was in favor of the NLRB ruling that Northwestern athletes were employees and can form a union, which will theoretically lead to pay for college athletes. Napier said he was glad because he has had a lot of "hungry nights."
Three days later, he was taking UConn back to the financial mountaintop, the Final Four, and doing it without pay.
Well, UConn is back for its fifth Final Four in 16 years, after having been sent to its room last year. The Huskies weren’t eligible for the NCAA tournament because their grades weren’t high enough. Niels Giffey said that the players had to help each other last year to try to stay positive. That, he said, had a big hand in where they are now.
And now it’s on to play Florida in the Final Four. Florida is the better team, and the only No. 1 seed left. In December, UConn played Florida and won by one on a buzzer-beating jumper.