At this time a year ago, Shabazz Napier was in NCAA Tournament withdrawal. Sanctions because of its academic performance prevented Connecticut from taking part in postseason play, so the Huskies' point guard found another way to occupy his mind and avoid March Madness.
"I didn't watch one game,'' Napier said Thursday. "I was more into watching 'River Monsters.' I didn't want to watch [basketball] because I felt like, if I did, I would be aggravated.''
But now UConn is back at Madison Square Garden, the scene of so much past glory in the old Big East, and Napier is set to lead the Huskies (28-8) against Iowa State (27-8) in the Sweet 16 tonight. His point guard matchup against the Cyclones' DeAndre Kane could command the Seventh Avenue marquee in the fashion of a heavyweight title fight because it pits the two most compelling players in the East Regional.
Napier, a first-team All-American and player of the year in the new American Athletic Conference, has averaged 24.5 points in UConn's two NCAA wins. After Iowa State lost Georges Niang with a broken foot, Kane stepped up to deliver 24 points, including the winning basket, against North Carolina to send the Cyclones to New York.
ISU coach Fred Hoiberg said, "He's been our Mariano Rivera. He's been our closer throughout the season.''
It was the perfect New York-centric analogy to set up a great show on the Garden stage. It extends to the former guards running things on the sidelines. Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie and Hoiberg enjoyed long NBA careers, were teammates on the Bulls and have been friends since they met on a recruiting trip to Arizona.
When Hoiberg retired and became assistant GM at Minnesota, Ollie said, "He took a chance on a 37-year-old point guard. He signed me for one year, and I thank him for that.''
"We needed a mentor-type guy,'' Hoiberg said. "The first guy to call was Kevin because I knew the impact he would have on our young players. He owes me because I resurrected his damn career.''
Ollie joked that the Cyclones are dangerous from three-point range because they "all shoot like Fred.'' The Huskies know how tough it's going to be to stop all those shooters, including Melvin Ejim, the Big 12 player of the year.
But Ollie said, "First is DeAndre Kane. He's just a great player. He's a 6-4 point guard that Fred posts up a lot . . . Yes, Shabazz is going to guard him. Niels [Giffey] is going to guard him. Our whole team is going to try to guard him.''
Kane isn't looking at it as a one-on-one matchup with Napier, but he understands many people are. "He's a great player,'' Kane said of Napier. "He's a leader out there. He makes big shots when they need it.''
New York, especially the Garden, is a place for point guards to shine. With UConn in the house, it's impossible not to think of the Huskies' Kemba Walker leading them to five wins in five days in the Big East Tournament and then to the 2011 NCAA title. Napier was a freshman on that team.
He learned about intangibles, character and teamwork from Walker, but Napier added, "I don't think I'm able to do what he did. I just want to do what I'm capable of doing, and wherever that takes us is where we're going.''
That's fine with Ollie, who has faith that Napier will be equal to the MSG moment.
"I know Shabazz is ready,'' Ollie said. "He's been ready the whole season. He's been ready since last year when we couldn't go to the NCAA Tournament. He's not scared of this moment and we're not scared of this moment.''