No one player lifted UConn to the Final Four by himself in this tournament, not after the Huskies made their way through the East Regional by earning upsets in their last three wins. No one player could have. It wasn't just one guy who forced Michigan State into miss after miss at the rim on Sunday in the Elite 8, or made sure the Spartans had more turnovers in the halfcourt than field goals.
It took a full team effort to get the Huskies this far, because it always does. But as Shabazz Napier hit three free throws to clinch a victory over the Spartans, it was impossible not to recognize the profound impact of the senior guard on both UConn and this tournament.
Basketball is the ultimate team game because it requires five men to work as one, but the Huskies would not have completed this brilliant run through the region without the type of special individual performance Napier has provided. Napier's teammates couldn't buy a bucket on Sunday, hitting just over 31 percent of their shots against Tom Izzo's big, athletic defense. The Spartans simply don't surrender good looks. Fortunately for UConn, Shabazz Napier has never needed a good look to score.
Even in a game where neither team could shoot even 40 percent from the floor, Napier was a threat with the ball every time he crossed half court. With the rest of the Huskies struggling to get anything going, Napier took it upon himself to propel the offense. Sometimes, this meant clearing everyone out and jacking a three-pointer from NBA range without even the slightest hint of conscious. It usually worked.
After finishing 6-of-14 from the field for 25 points against Michigan State, Napier made it all the way to the Final Four by scoring at least 30 percent of UConn's points in every win during this tournament run. Without him playing at such a high level, UConn would have been eliminated long ago.
Don't think that's anything out of the ordinary. It's how the Huskies have done it all year long. The formula for UConn has been simple: make sure a defense that places No. 10 in Ken Pom's rankings can lock down opposing offenses, and give Napier enough chances to swing for a knockout punch when the Huskies have the ball. Napier is still only shooting 42 percent from the field this season, but part of it is because UConn relies on him to create so much of the offense. If nothing is coming easy, it's better to have Napier shooting rather than anyone else.
At this point in the tournament, even the most balanced teams have a way of taking on the characteristics of their star player. This tournament is no exception. As the tournament heads for its dramatic conclusion in north Texas, here are the rest of the players that have helped personify this year's Final Four.
Scottie Wilbekin, Florida
By now you know the story of Wilbekin, the Gators' senior point guard who was suspended from the team twice in eight months during the run up to this season. You know he's the one Billy Donovan told to transfer. He's the one who was forced to live with his parents due to multiple violations of team rules and the one who had to start his offseason practices at 7 a.m. as part of his penance.
Wilbekin's redemption has been one of the bigger talking points throughout the tournament, but don't let the narrative overpower what's happening on the court. It wouldn't be a story if his play wasn't the most inspiring part of the journey.
Wilbekin personifies Florida as much as anyone because of everything he isn't just as much as because of everything he is. He is not considered an NBA prospect. He's a little undersized. He looks like every member of the Backstreet Boys rolled into one. In shooting under 40 percent on the season, he has not exactly always made it look easy, either. But as Wilbekin continued to cut through Dayton's defense just like he did against UCLA and Pittsburgh, it was a continuation on a trend that has defined Florida all season. They just won't be denied, and it's because of players like their senior floor general.
A player like Wilbekin shouldn't be able to hit shots this difficult with any kind of consistency, but to watch Wilbekin in this tournament is see him make this type of shot over and over again.
Whether it's in the paint, from three-point range or at the foul line, Wilbekin has made a habit out of always finding a way. The Gators are a fully formed organism, but it's their point guard who acts as the nucleus. Maybe there was a time when Donovan really didn't want Wilbekin on the team, but it's hard to imagine Florida ever getting this far without him.
Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
Before the Badgers faced the impossible task of going up against Arizona's team of long and explosive future pros in the Elite 8, junior center Frank Kaminsky was asked to consider how the Wildcats would describe his team. His answer was simple enough: "White guys".
Outwardly, Kaminsky really does look like the typical Badger player under Bo Ryan. He's tall and he isn't noted for his athleticism. He was not a top recruit, but he can really shoot. It takes a closer inspection to see what makes Kaminsky and his Badger teammates special, and the entire country got to witness it in unison against the Wildcats on Saturday night.
Reputation says Bo Ryan's teams are slow and offensively-challenged. History says the Badgers have lost in either the round of 32 or the Sweet 16 the past seven years. Well, to watch this Wisconsin team is to forget what you used to know and be ready to embrace something new.
Somewhere along the way, the Badgers became this tournament's answer to the San Antonio Spurs, whipping the ball around the half court and refusing to take a selfish shot. It helped them come back down 12 points at the half to Oregon in the round of 32. It helped them drub Baylor in the Sweet 16. Somehow, it even helped them get past Ken Pom's No. 1 defense out in Arizona to make the Final Four.
There was no way it could have happened without Kaminsky, who saved the game of his life for the best possible moment. All he did was score nearly 44 percent of his team's points. Kaminsky got buckets inside against Wildcats 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski and soon-to-be lottery pick Aaron Gordon. He stretched Arizona's impeccable defense thin by hitting three three-pointers. Every time Arizona made a run, Kaminsky was there to make a shot to ensure the Badgers were still in it. He was the best player on a floor that had a lot of very good players.
So, why is this Wisconsin team different from the ones that came before it? Having a 7-footer with range for days and the ability to score inside too in the middle of the attack is a good place to start.
Julius Randle, Kentucky
You weren't exactly going out on a limb to pick Kentucky to make it to the Final Four before the season started. After all, the Wildcats were No. 1 in the preseason polls. A record six freshmen named to the McDonald's All-American Game months before had Lexington swimming in delusions of a repeat of 2012, when Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones powered a team that went 38-2 and won the national championship.
The team that will meet Wisconsin in Dallas looks every bit like the powerhouse that was long expected, but the true story of the 2014 Wildcats requires a more complicated explanation. That No. 8 seed next to their name doesn't lie as much as some want to believe. Kentucky wasn't always this good. The reason everyone thought they would be is because the Wildcats have more size in the front court in the starting lineup and on the bench than many NBA teams. It all starts with Julius Randle.
Randle was never really the reason the Wildcats lost 10 games this year when some didn't expect them to lose any. The 6'9 power forward has mostly been the beast he was suspected of being all year long. On a team of huge, powerful athletes, Randle is the biggest and the strongest.
After scoring 16 points and pulling down 11 rebounds against Michigan on Sunday, Randle has gone for a double-double in all four games during this tournament. He now has the second most double-doubles for a freshmen in NCAA history.
Randle might not be a drop-dead shooter just yet, but he's become the type of 250 lbs. inside-out threat that causes a matchup nightmare for anyone. It doesn't matter how many defenders are draped all over him. Randle usually finds a way.
The shear size of Kentucky has never been more apparent than it was against Michigan on Sunday, when little known freshman named Marcus Lee scored 10 points in the first half. Lee has 15 DNPs on his resume this season, but of course he was still a McDonald's All-American coming out of California. To bring a 6'9, 215 lbs. athlete as bouncy as Marcus Lee off the bench shows just how rich Kentucky's talent has always been.
Randle is the best manifestation of the idea that this Kentucky team was never really fair. It took some time, but the Wildcats are finally proving it.