ARLINGTON, Texas — It’s been said countless times that the NCAA Tournament is decided by guard play. For all the prowess of college basketball’s big men, it’s usually the team with the better backcourt that wins in March.
Two of the best examples are Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin and UConn’s Shabazz Napier, senior guards who are the undisputed leaders of their teams as they prepare to face off in Saturday’s Final Four semifinal.
Both display the leadership and shot-making ability any Final Four team needs. But both also could easily have walked away from their teams a year ago.
In Napier’s case, not getting to play in March would have been good reason to leave. Connecticut was banned from postseason play in 2013 because of a poor score on the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate calculator.
UConn coach Kevin Ollie said Napier’s decision to stay despite the ban is what separates him from other Huskies great, especially Kemba Walker, whom he is so often compared to.
"None of those guys has been through a ban and had the option of leaving," Ollie said Friday. "And probably nobody in this room would have blinked their eyes and said, ‘Yeah, OK, I’m transferring because we’re banned.’ He had to deal with that."
Napier stayed, in part because of a promise to his mother to get his degree. But Napier also stayed because of a sense of loyalty to the program that is increasingly uncomon in this era of one-and-done players who are just passing through on the way to the NBA.
Napier’s devotion to his teammates has paid off in a Final Four berth.
"We call it ‘under the waterline’ – doing a lot of things that a lot of people don’t see. He gets those guys together. The big word that we use in our program is ownership. He’s taken ownership of his team," Ollie said.
"When I can come in, and Shabazz is already doing drills, already out there with the fellows, I’m like, Man! I call him my unpaid coach, because he has a coaching mentality."
Wilbekin displays the same leadership skills with Florida, but his had to be forged through personal adversity.
Wilbekin was suspended from the Florida program last summer for violating team rules, the second suspension of his college career.
Players typically don’t return after more than one suspension, and in fact Florida coach Billy Donovan offered to release Wilbekin and let him move on.
Instead, Wilbekin rededicated himself to basketball and met a set of criteria laid out by Donovan. Wilbekin earned his way back to practicing with the team in October.
"I presented him the opportunity to leave if he wanted to start over fresh," Donovan recalled. "He didn’t want to. But I felt like he needed to restore his credibility back inside the team and he, to his credit, did a phenomenal job with that."
Wilbekin and Napier crossed paths in December when UConn handed Florida (36-2) its last loss 30 games ago.
Napier hit a buzzer-beater to win that game, 65-64, although Wilbekin never saw it. Wilbekin was in a training room getting treated for an ankle injury when the game ended.
"It was pretty low," Wilbekin said of the loss to UConn. "I’d say it was the lowest point [of the season] for us."
On Saturday, the matchup between Napier and Wilbekin will get plenty of attention. Napier is known for his hot shooting while Wilbekin is known for his tough defense.
"Scottie’s going to need help because Kevin puts Shabazz in a lot of situations that he’s coming off screens, he’s in pick-and-rolls with the floor spread," Donovan said. "To put Scottie on an island and expect him all by himself to handle him, Shabazz is just too gifted offensively. So it’s got to be a group effort."
But both players can do much more than shoot and defend, which is what makes them leaders.
"The one thing I would say with Shabazz, which is a little bit different, is he is a very, very good distributor of the ball," Donovan said. "He gets fouled a lot. He gets to the free throw line a lot. He opens up things for other guys.
"I would say Scottie Wilbekin, maybe in a different way, does some of those similar things for our team as well."