Tuesday, February 21, 2012
TMA: Shabazz's shot of the season
By Eamonn Brennan
The Morning After is our semi-daily recap of last night's best basketball action. It is glad it doesn't own a cat. It already feels crazy enough. (Also, cats are gross.)
Connecticut 73, Villanova 70: First things first: Can we muster a little sympathy for Villanova? It shouldn't be hard. The Wildcats are mired in a nothing season, but they're still fighting like hell every time they take the floor. On Saturday, they yielded a huge first-half lead to Notre Dame, eventually losing overtime. On Monday night, they gave UConn everything the Huskies could handle, tied the game in the final seconds, and then lost on a 30-foot game-winning 3-pointer. I mean, how rough is that?
But oh, what a 30-foot game-winning 3-pointer it was! Shabazz Napier earned every ounce of emphasis from Bill Raftery's "Onions!" call last night. (How many texts did you get with the word "Onions!" as the entirety of the message? My answer: Some, but not enough.) He also earned his stripes. This is the same player, remember, who criticized his teammates back in January for not allowing him to be a leader. It's the same player who, after Saturday's home loss to Marquette, told the media he "had to question some of these guys' heart." Napier is an earnest, thoughtful guy, and you can tell he hates what UConn has been all season -- uninspired, soft, worse than the sum of its considerable parts. But becoming a leader isn't just about words, or about asserting yourself in a timeout. It's also about example, about making the biggest plays in the biggest moments. On Monday, with the Huskies' NCAA tournament future hanging in the balance, Napier did exactly that.
Where does UConn go from here? We'll see. It's possible, of course, that this was merely a shot, not the shot -- the one that will change this team's season, alter its trajectory, send it rocketing toward NCAA tournament glory. And, yeah, this was still Villanova, a team UConn should probably beat by 20. But whatever. It's what the Huskies needed in the moment, and Napier gave it to them. And, in the process, earned one of the best uses of Raf's "ONIONS!" in the history of the form. No matter where the Huskies go from here, that's an awfully good night.
No. 14 Baylor 77, Texas 72: On Monday afternoon, in preparation for this game, ESPN Insider and tempo-free stats guru Ken Pomeroy explained why Texas, despite its then-17-10 record and noteworthy lack of quality wins, was actually better than you thought. In short, Texas had great per-possession stats, but had lost a handful of close games to top Big 12 squads like Kansas (a three-point defeat) and Missouri (which won by a one-point margin). The Longhorns lack of interior length and relatively ugly style played a role, too, but more than anything, Texas was a better-than-you-think team with a knack for losing close games and thus obscuring its overall quality.
And, well, yep: That's exactly what happened Monday night.
The Longhorns played even, or better than even, with Baylor for almost 40 minutes. Unfortunately, it's the "almost" part that matters most. The NCAA tournament selection committee doesn't care about your per-possession stats. It doesn't care that dudes like me (or even Ken!) say you're underrated. The committee cares about wins and losses. What Texas needed Monday night wasn't another hard-fought, close loss, another chance for us to say how good the Longhorns are, if only they could get over the hump. What they needed was a win. Without it, Texas' at-large tournament profile looks shakier than ever. The only remaining chance to get a marquee win down the stretch is the March 3 date at Kansas. Yeah. Good luck with that.
In the meantime, though Baylor's tourney inclusion has been a lock for weeks, this felt like a game the Bears needed, too. They'd lost three of their last four, including a home game to Kansas State Saturday, one in which Perry Jones III fouled out with four points on 2 of 6 shooting from the field. Jones' mercurial nature makes him difficult to rely on (he was described as an "enigma" on the broadcast last night, and I can't think of a more appropriate adjective), but the benefit of having so much talent on one team means Quincy Acy -- who is very good, let's remember -- can go all 22-and-16 beast-mode on an overmatched Texas front line and still power you to a hard-fought win. Baylor has its issues, sure, but despite them all, this Bears team quite often can, and does, bring it. Monday night was no exception.