Before the tournament, UConn fans were forced to temper their expectations going into March Madness. Even though the roster was loaded with talent, this team had nights where we were left questioning if they could actually make a run in March.
It was a constant narrative throughout the season. Why can't DeAndre Daniels play with any consistency? How come Ryan Boatright disappears for stretches at a time? Omar Calhoun, what the hell? And don't even get me started on our big men...
Shabazz Napier has received a lot of credit from the media for UConn's tournament run thus far, and it makes sense- the guy's an absolute stud. They look at the box score and see that he led the team in scoring both games and see highlights of some amazing plays in the final minutes so as the unquestioned leader of the team all season the simplest explanation is that Shabazz Napier "put da team on his back doe" and willed UConn into the Sweet 16.
While I would never, ever, EVER, want to diminish Shabazz Napier's accomplishments, I respectfully disagree.
DeAndre Daniels has scored double digits in six straight games going into tonight. During that stretch, he has shot 52% from 3-point range and is averaging nearly 7 rebounds per game. He has hit some extremely important shots in the tournament and has basically been exactly the kind of player we thought he could be with the added bonus of being a three-point threat. His three point play for the first points in overtime of the St. Joe's game was... special. We've said all season he could be the X-factor, and right now he is looking like it.
With all due respect to his Royal Bazziness, Ryan Boatright has been my favorite player on this team so far in the tournament. With Shabazz struggling early in both games, the Boat Show has been an absolute rock. He has been able to consistently shake defenders, create (and make) his own shot, and keep defenders honest with his ability to drive and finish at the basket. His over and behind the back pass to Amida Brimah against St. Joes was an absolute thing of beauty and testament to his ability to create opportunities for his teammates. He was 4-6 from deep in that game, and at times in both games was the only consistent scorer on the floor for the Huskies- helping us stay afloat as we fell behind early. With Boatright and Daniels playing at a such a consistently high level, concurrently for the first time all season, this is all of a sudden looking like the team that had me thinking National Championship before the season started.
UConn's run to the Sweet 16 has also had two unexpected 'heroes' emerge in each of the two wins- and they're both freshman. Amida Brimah's three-point play which turned out to be the game-tying points at the end of regulation against St. Joe's was sensational. But don't overlook the fact that he scored 9 points and grabbed 6 rebounds across 30 solid minutes in the victory effort. He was altering shots all over the place and, despite a modest stat line, was able to do more of the same against Villanova. Not to mention a ree-diculous block on James Bell which he punctuated with a Mutombo finger wag.
While Brimah's contribution against St. Joes was not completely out of left field, Terrance Samuel playing a key role in the Villanova game is most definitely not something that anyone could have predicted. Thrust into the game due to Shabazz Napier's foul trouble, the 6-foot-4 point guard looked nothing like a freshman, playing with the controlled aggression of an experienced vet. He ended that game with 11 points by earning 8 trips to the charity stripe, hitting 7 of them. Now the Brooklyn kid gets to play his hometown arena, which actually doubles as the Mecca of organized basketball. I'd like to see more of him tonight- we could use his size against Iowa State's rangy guards.
I've already mentioned four great contributors to UConn's opening weekend victories, but an article about UConn's role players stepping up would be incomplete without mentioning our glue guys. Across the season and in the conference and national tournament we have been blessed with excellent performances from Niels Giffey and Lasan Kromah. Giffey only scored four in the Villanova game, but took down 11 rebounds while playing his trademark lockdown defense. Kromah is an absurd defender who shook off some offensive rust aginst Villanova and scored over 10 points for the first time since early February. I am really going to miss both of these guys next year.
While this is undoubtedly Shabazz Napier's team, the mainstream media is talking about UConn like we trot out four guys who stand around to watch him be excellent and perform unusual sweeping rituals on the bench. This could not be further from the truth. Contrary to popular belief, this is a very complete team. A team hitting its stride at exactly the right time that happens to be playing home games for the right to play in the Final Four.
All season we (or I) have been saying that this team will live by the 'Bazz and die by the 'Bazz. Well the 'Bazz couldn't play the last 12 minutes of the first half against Villanova and the Huskies were down big. By all accounts we were dead in the water. Instead the Huskies rallied without their best player and actually built a lead of their own for Shabazz to nurture and build on upon his return in the second half. Without that stretch at the end of the first half, there might not be any games in MSG for us to be spending our hundreds on. Because of that stretch, and the improved consistency of players not named Shabazz, UConn can go as far as they want in this tournament and if they do you can be certain it won't be a one man show.
Lastly, I have an apology. This article was scheduled to come out on Tuesday and due to some internet complications combined with life events with a little bit of "took a half day on Friday so I could go to MSG so real work has piled up and needs to get done like a mother effer" sprinkled on top, I have not been able to provide the depth of coverage that I was hoping to. I am sorry. This is a huge week for UConn and we could have done a lot more with it, next time we make a deep tournament run (aka next year) I promise to be better. Or to take the whole week off from work.
I'll be in New York City tonight, starting at Stout NYC around 3-4 and probably will meet up with the alumni group at Thirsty Fan right before the game. Would love to see and speak with any and all of you if possible. You can contact me via The UConn Blog's twitter or my personal account @Aman_Kidwai
LET'S GO HUSKIES!