College basketball often seems inherently geared toward making you devalue the regular season. Bracketology lectures start in February now, when most teams still have seven or eight meaningful conference games left. This season in particular features such an impressive collection of hyped freshman talent that it's sometimes hard not to view college hoops through an NBA lens. But while so many are preoccupied thinking about premature seeding projections or how an 18-year-old's game will translate to the next level, this is often the best time of the year for the things in college sports that actually matter, such as the atmospheres, the rivalries and down-to-the-wire finishes.
This was exactly the case on Saturday in Storrs, Conn.
Memphis and UConn played one of the best games of the season. It was a back-and-forth affair all afternoon before the Huskies eventually pulled away in overtime, winning, 86-81. Neither of these teams has obvious NBA talent. Both will be fighting for a No. 4 or No. 5 seed in the tournament, at best. It doesn't matter. This was an amazing basketball game for all the right reasons.
If you know anything about UConn, you know about Shabazz Napier. He's a 6'1 gunner of a point guard who has been hitting big shots his entire career, but barely registers a blip on draft boards. Right now, DraftExpress has Napier as the No. 84 prospect in its top 100. He's the No. 13 senior. Still, if you've had the pleasure of watching Napier ball at the college level, you know he's a special talent. Remember when he dropped 26 on Florida and hit the game-winner at the buzzer earlier this season?
This is what the man does: fly around the court for 35 minutes, pull up from anywhere and make big-time plays. Napier has been fantastic for the Huskies all year. He'll probably be an All-American at season's end. On Saturday he showed why, on his way to a career-high 34 points.
Memphis and its four senior guards just kept coming at UConn, but Napier would never let the game get away. At one point in the second half, he scored nine straight points for the Huskies. He was getting in the lane for layups and pulling up from deep (5-of-13 from three) with little regard for the concept of a "good look." Memphis fans will be having nightmares about Napier for the rest of the week. The plays he made when the ball wasn't in his hands were just as impressive, finishing second on the team with five rebounds and also coming away with four steals.
He's basically a straight-up warrior:
Classic Napier quote on typical AAC games: "I kinda hate playing teams we're just going to demolish. I really do."— Kevin Duffy (@KevinRDuffy) February 15, 2014
Napier (cont): "I think I play bad in those games because I don't even want to play. But I understand that these games...are much-needed."— Kevin Duffy (@KevinRDuffy) February 15, 2014
Napier had a shot to win it at the end of regulation but his game-winner somehow bounced in and out. It was totally unjust after the type of game he had, but UConn would rally in overtime. That's when Napier got some help from his similarly diminutive backcourt mate, Ryan Boatright.
Think of Boatright and Napier as what the Milwaukee Bucks were thinking with the Brandon Jennings-Monta Ellis backcourt a couple of years ago, with the only difference being the lack of height doesn't really hurt them in college. They're both so fast and so skilled that neither breaking 6'1 is much of an issue.
Boatright has been a cold-blooded scorer his entire life out of Aurora, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago. He signed a letter of intent with Tim Floyd and USC in eighth grade before he even knew what high school he would play for. Boatright had an incredible high school career at East Aurora, famously dropping 63 on a previously undefeated Proviso West team and being named co-Mr. Basketball in the state as a senior.
His college career started off on a horrible note, as the NCAA unforgivably made him sit out much of his freshman year because Derrick Rose's older brother bought a plane ticket for Boatright's mom so she could visit the campus with her son. It was a perfect example of everything that's wrong with the NCAA, but Boatright would survive. Now he's a junior at UConn and he's starting to come into his own. Though Boatright's numbers are down from his sophomore season, he's still capable of doing incredible things with the ball like he did in overtime against Memphis.
Napier fed Boatright, cutting on the baseline, with a perfectly placed bounce pass for a layup at the start of the overtime period. On the next possession, Boatright hit a deep pull-up three off the dribble. Napier would hit a deep three of his own in OT to seal it for UConn. Boatright finished with 21 points and six assists, Napier continued to grow his legend and the Huskies earned a great road win.
Napier and Boatright are both longshots to make it in the NBA, but college basketball is so much more than a breeding ground for the pros. The energy inside the arena for UConn vs. Memphis was unlike anything you'll see in a regular season NBA game. Sometimes it's best to forget about what this all means for the NCAA tournament and how these players will fair in the NBA. As Memphis and UConn proved on Saturday, the games themselves are enough.