STORRS, Conn. (AP) – Shabazz Napier had several opportunities to leave the University of Connecticut over the past four seasons.
The senior from Roxbury, Mass. won a national championship as a freshman and could have transferred, as others did, when the Huskies were hit with academic sanctions after his sophomore season. He might have left when Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun retired just before the start of his junior year in which the Huskies were banned from the NCAA tournament. And he had the opportunity to declare for the NBA draft after leading the team to a 20-10 record last season.
But the 6-foot-1 point guard decided to stick it out.
”It’s just how life is,” Napier said Tuesday. ”You go through a lot of obstacles in life to get where you want to be. To be successful, everybody thinks the path is just straight ahead. There’s a lot of obstacles. There’s a lot of rivers, a lot of mountains you have to pass.”
Napier will be honored at Gampel Pavilion on Wednesday night along with fellow seniors Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander and graduate student Lasan Kromah before the 19th-ranked Huskies (23-6, 11-5 American Athletic Conference) take on Rutgers (11-18, 5-11).
”Their loyalty, what they showed the program in the midst of adversity, the character that they showed, the leadership that they showed when we was in a difficult time, really means a lot to me,” second-year coach Kevin Ollie said. ”We needed those guys to stay and they stuck with us.”
Most of all, UConn has needed Napier.
He is the only player in school history with 1,700 points and 600 assists, and has two career triple-doubles. He enters Wednesday’s game as the eighth-leading all-time scorer at UConn, 28 points behind his mentor, Kemba Walker. He needs just 13 assists to pass Ollie for third place on that list.
He leads the team in scoring (17.8 points per game), rebounding (6.0), assists (5.3) and steals (1.9). He is in the running for the John Wooden Award, the Naismith Trophy, the Oscar Robertson Trophy, and the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award. He’s been the conference player of the week five times.
Ollie said he expects Napier’s name will eventually join those of other Husky greats on a plaque inside Gampel Pavilion.
But his teammates say they are more impressed with what he has done off the court. He is scheduled to graduate this spring with a degree in sociology, and was recently honored among the school’s student-athletes who achieved a grade point average of at least 3.0.
”He didn’t come back for basketball, primarily he came back for his degree,” Giffey said. ”That’s something you’ve just got to respect as a friend and as a man.”
Giffey said he’s also come to respect Napier’s character.
Napier received a lot of criticism after taking over at point guard from Walker during in 2011-12. He would try to do too much his sophomore year, and alienated some teammates by questioning their heart after bad games. The Huskies finished 20-14, losing to Iowa State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
But after the NCAA announced UConn would be banned from the 2013 postseason because of past academic problems, Napier went to Calhoun and told him he was coming back to see things through.
His teammates and coaches say he’s been their unquestioned leader ever since.
”The transformation of him just as a person behind the scenes has just been unbelievable,” Olander said. ”He’s grown so much. It’s hard to put into words what he’s done on the court and his growth off the court has been ever more remarkable.”
Earlier this season, UConn’s Sports Information Department compiled a list of 18 games in which key plays by Napier led to UConn wins. Those include the Dec. 2 shot at the buzzer that gave the Huskies a 65-64 win over now-No. 1 Florida.
”A lot of guys may be afraid of missing a shot,” Napier said. ”You never know if you’re going to make the shot unless you take the shot. Of course, some of them you’re going to miss. That’s a part of life. But you have to be willing to take it.”
Rutgers is going through some tough times of its own in its first season under coach Eddie Jordan, who took over the program after Mike Rice was fired for berating players and athletic director Tim Pernetti was forced to resign.
The Scarlet Knights, though, are coming off a solid win. They ended their third four-game losing streak of the season with a 74-73 victory over South Florida on Saturday as Kadeem Jack’s shot in the lane with 11.1 seconds to play helped Rutgers overcome a 15-point deficit in the second half.
UConn won 82-71 at Rutgers on Jan. 25 behind Napier’s 26 points, the Huskies’ 12th victory in the last 13 meetings. Rutgers is 3-19 all-time on the road in the series, going 2-14 in Storrs.