Words. Julian Caldwell
The symbolism of freshman guard Jeremy Lamb taking an assist from junior Kemba Walker to put UConn up by one point late in the Big East Tournament final, and freshman Shabazz Napier nailing the final two free throws was almost too perfect.
Most of the attention on UConn’s backcourt goes to Walker, the explosive scorer who is expected to graduate this year and enter the NBA Draft with his stock sky high. Yet Walker is symbolically passing the ball off to freshmen guards Lamb and Napier, who have become integral pieces in the current success of the Huskies, and will likely play bigger roles in any future triumphs.
Coming off of a physically taxing week in the Big East Tournament, UConn can’t rely as heavily on Walker in the NCAAs. Lamb and Napier will need to help sustain a balanced backcourt in order to keep opposing guards busy on both ends of the court.
The older of the two is coincidentally Napier, a 19-year-old who graduated after his junior year at Charlestown High School in Massachusetts to play under Coach Jim Calhoun a year early. It was Napier who literally lifted up Walker after the junior’s game-winner in the tourney quarterfinal against Pittsburgh, and in the finals, it was Napier who calmly sank two free throws with 3.9 seconds left to give the Huskies the three-point lead that they never relinquished.
In the NCAA Tournament, Napier will be valued by the Huskies on offense and defense as a second floor general to Walker. Only Walker averages more assists and steals than Napier for UConn, and he plays an average of 14 minutes fewer than his mentor. When the Big Dance starts, Napier could see that time gap come closer together as his relationship to Walker becomes more like that of a co-worker than a student.
“At the end of the day I feel as though I’m blessed because I’m playing with one of the best players in the country and I’m learning from him,” Napier said of Walker. “The things he does on the court is spectacular for me to watch, because as a freshman you don’t really see stuff like that.”
Walker scored a record 130 points in five Big East Tournament games, but he managed just 19 in the final against Louisville. With the tourney’s Most Outstanding Player not as dominant, scoring needed to come from elsewhere, and Lamb provided, going for 13 points on 5-of-11 shooting.
Lamb is UConn’s second-leading scorer behind Walker, and provided an additional weapon in the final game of the Huskies’ impressive five-day run.
“‘He’s big time,’ Kemba kept saying,” Calhoun said in reference to Lamb. “You know what? He’s big time. He’s played big time in big time games, and it doesn’t get much better for us here unless you get to the national level.”
Well tomorrow at 7:20 p.m., Lamb and Napier will be on that national level when UConn opens its national championship quest against Bucknell. With defenses sure to focus in on the National Player of the Year candidate, it will be essential for UConn to get even more production from his comrades.
And if their performances in the Big East Tournament are any indication of what they will do in the NCAAs, the Huskies are poised for yet another deep run in March.
What do you think? How far will UConn go?
Also, check out some exclusive interviews with Napier, Donnell Beverly, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel and Roscoe Smith on the next page.