Napier off the bench, or: why Jim Calhoun is a better coach than I am

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 04: Shabazz Napier #13 of the Connecticut Huskies passes the ball against Andrew Smith #44 and Matt Howard #54 of the Butler Bulldogs during the National Championship Game of the 2011 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament at Reliant Stadium on April 4, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Chris Steppig-Pool/Getty Images)

We've teamed up with Nestea this week to talk about who and what is bold in the world of UConn sports. This is the second of two sponsored posts we've run this week.

Let's say you're Jim Calhoun, and you have a talented freshman point guard with skills on both sides of the ball. And let's say his name can often look like it's a bit of fun onomatopoeia (SHABAZZ~!). He's clearly one of your four or five best players, and in an ideal world he would be a no-brainer starter.

UConn's best lineup last year was probably the Shabazz Napier-Kemba Walker-Jeremy Lamb-Roscoe Smith-Alex Oriakhi quintent, with Walker doing his thing off the ball. And yet not one of UConn's 11 postseason games last season saw the Huskies utilize this lineup from the tipoff - instead, Tyler Olander usually started instead of Napier.

True, Napier was always going to be out there for starters' minutes, but Calhoun's substitution pattern for Napier was a bold choice. It was an understandable strategy, but still a risky one. And it worked beautifully.

Think of it as if UConn picking up one of those super-mushrooms in Mario Kart at the 13:00 mark of the first half of every Big East and NCAA Tournament game. With Napier serving as a spark plug off the bench, the Huskies were able to consistently dominate the latter parts of the first half, generally giving the team a nice halftime cushion. With almost every game decided in the margins, you can't underestimate the impact of a guy like SHABAZZ~! off the bench.

Calhoun didn't exactly break in new ground by bringing in a speedy, talented point guard off the bench midway through the first half; two years earlier, Kemba Walker served the same role and was Kembawesome. (And incidentally, Geno Auriemma did the same thing with Maya Moore during her freshman year in 2008-09.)

The difference between Kemba's freshman year and Shabazz's freshman year is very simple, though: that 2009 team was a team of talented veterans; the 2011 team was a bunch of freshmen.

When Kemba didn't start games in the '09 NCAA Tournament, it just meant that Craig Austrie had to hold his own surrounded by A.J. Price, Hasheem Thabeet and Stanley Robinson.

When SHABAZZ~! began games on the bench in this year's tournament ... it meant playing time for Olander, Donnell Beverly, and a much younger and less deep squad. I'm not sure I would have been willing to risk a slow start in single-elimination tournament games by playing a less-than-optimal starting five.

But, because Jim Calhoun is the master of the universe, Napier came off the bench, helped UConn close strong in just about every first half, and everything worked out oh so swimmingly.

To research just how well it worked, I went through last year's Big East and NCAA Tournament box scores and pinpointed the exact second that Napier was subbed in. The earliest he came in was in the Elite Eight against Arizona (15:00, first half), while his latest entry was in the Final Four game against Kentucky (10:47, first half).

To find a quick and dirty way to put a number on Napier's impact, I looked at a small-sample size version of plus/minus. In this case, I'm comparing the score during the elapsed time before Napier's first entry, and comparing it to the same amount of time immediately after. That is to say, if he came into a game at 15:00 (five minutes after tipoff), I then compared the score then to the score at the 10-minute mark (five minutes after he came in). Here were the results:

Score before

Napier in at

Score after

+/-

DePaul (BET 1st Round)

9-4, UConn

14:06

25-14, UConn

+6

Georgetown (BET 2nd Round)

12-11, UConn

12:18

33-22, UConn

+10

Pittsburgh (BET Quarterfinals)

20-8, Pitt

13:31

33-21, Pitt

+0

Syracuse (BET Semifinals)

12-7, Syracuse

12:52

19-19

+5

Louisville (BET Final)

14-11, UConn

13:05

29-20, UConn

+6

Bucknell (NCAA 1st Round)

21-15, UConn

11:08

36-20, UConn

+10

Cincinnati (NCAA 2nd Round)

17-13, Cincinnati

12:29

26-22, UConn

+8

San Diego State (NCAA Sweet 16)

10-10

12:48

22-19, SDSU

-3

Arizona (NCAA Elite Eight)

11-6, Arizona

15:00

18-14, Arizona

+1

Kentucky (NCAA Final Four)

12-11, Kentucky

10:47

31-21, UConn

+11

Butler (NCAA Final)

13-9,  UConn

12:21

19-16, UConn

-1

 

That's a total of plus-53 for Napier over about 80 minutes. Prior to Napier entering the games, UConn was outscored 133-124; in the exact same number of minutes after Napier entered, UConn outscored its opponents 148-95. In all but two games, UConn either added on to their lead or cut into a deficit.

That certainly seems like it backs up my impressions from that tournament run; a bunch of sluggish starts, then Napier coming in, spelling Kemba (and allowing him to work off the ball), and UConn suddenly going on a run. In almost every case, it seemed like Calhoun deployed Napier at exactly the right time, giving the Huskies a second wind while their opponents could not respond.

End result: national championship banners for all! Yay! So we congratulate Coach Cal on a masterfully bold strategy when it came to unleashing the Shabazzness, just one of many excellent moves he made en route to his best coaching job at UConn, maybe ever.

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