Last season's UConn team was disappointing in ways that go deeper than wins and losses.
Despite coming off a national title, it was a young team, devoid of its star and do-everything leader Kemba Walker, so there were always going to be some growing pains. But as the season progressed, the Huskies didn't grow at all. They didn't defend with anything resembling intensity. They looked disengaged. Their 80-59 Feb. 6 blowout at Louisville -- in which they scored .83 points per possession and let Louisville finish fast-break after fast-break -- was a specific nadir. I remember watching it in a hotel room, slack-jawed, as Bill Raftery and the ESPN announcing crew threw up their arms and officially gave up on a defending national champion with two future lottery picks. It was bad.
By that point, coach Jim Calhoun had long since chalked up the struggles to a lack of leadership. In fact, when asked about it, he responded "There's not a lack of it. There is none." At the time, point guard Shabazz Napier was doing his level best to be a vocal leader, the coach on the floor, but his teammates seemed totally uninterested, which led to this particularly sad quote:
"I try to tell the guys, I feel as if I’m their best leader. Sometimes they give me a chance, sometimes they don’t," Napier continued. [...] I try my best to be a leader, even though guys don’t give me a chance to be that person. It shows in the game, I can’t lie. When we have a tipped ball and big guys get the ball and I’m yelling for the ball back out, we’ve got a new shot clock and they go back up … that shows I’m not that much of a leader."
It was hard not to feel for the guy. He was doing his best! He saw a team that needed leadership, and he tried to provide it. He just couldn't get the rest of his team to buy in. That had to hurt, you know?
Now Calhoun is retired, forwards Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith have transferred, new coach Kevin Ollie received a mere eight-month commitment from the school, and UConn has no shot of competing in the NCAA tournament. Given all that, and last year's frustrations, it would be easy for Napier to check out, to say he's over it, to decide to let someone else try to lead the team.
Instead, Napier is doubling down. He's admitting his own mistakes, taking responsibility for the lackluster season, and doing his best to be an even better teammate in 2012-13. From CBS' Jeff Goodman:
"I take full responsibility for last year," Napier said. "I wasn't ready to be a leader. I didn't know how to talk to teammates the right way. We all make mistakes as leaders. [...] "I'm going to be different this year. I think I've matured as a leader, but it doesn't mean anything until I go out and do it."
That's really impressive stuff. UConn may not amount to much this season -- their personnel losses are going to be hard to overcome, and motivation will be a challenge with no tourney to look forward to -- but they can earn the country's respect by playing hard and playing together. If they do, Napier will have a major role in their redemption. This is how a leader sounds.