STORRS, Conn. -- Shabazz Napier hit a game-winning, buzzer-beating jumper to beat Florida 65-64 in a thriller Monday at Gampel Pavilion. Here are five observations for the Huskies and Gators.
1. UConn and Napier came through late, again: Napier doesn't want to be compared to Kemba Walker.
It's not fair -- to Walker.
"Those are big shoes to fill,'' Napier said after his game winner.
"I'd have to win a national championship,'' Napier said of Walker's improbable run to claim Big East and NCAA tournament titles in 2011. "I'm trying to be myself.''
Napier learned from Walker and emerged from under his shadow a year ago with Walker off to the NBA. But a team Academic Progress Rate ban meant the Huskies couldn't go to the postseason, and anything Napier did wouldn't have the same cachet without the possibility of an NCAA tournament berth.
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesShabazz Napier had 26 points on 9-for-15 shooting to lead UConn to a win over Florida on Monday.
Walker made money shots for the Huskies during that magical run in 2011. No one is saying this season's Huskies are en route to a national title. But no one said that about UConn in 2011, either -- at any point until the Huskies won the Big East Tournament title.
Napier has had moments in his career already -- like beating Villanova in Philadelphia -- but nothing was quite like the walk-off shot he made Monday night.
"You always see highlight films of the guys hitting the last shot or guys at the free throw line making the free throws,'' Napier said. "You want to be the hero. You want to be the guy who's known as the hero at the end of the game. Growing up, I wanted to be Superman. Everyone wants to be a hero. I was fortunate enough to be in the right spot at the right time.''
The undefeated Huskies have late-possession wins over Maryland, Boston College and Indiana and now against a depleted, but gritty and determined, Florida team.
"I'm happy, but I'm a little exhausted,'' UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "Another one-point game, but, once again, we showed our resolve. … You look on the stat sheet, and I don't know how we do it. They shoot 49 percent and outrebound us, but, at the end of the day, we get it done. It's a magical team. They've been through a lot.''
2. Napier might be the best late-game shooter: Napier isn't a lock for the first round of the NBA draft like the high-profile freshmen, but it's hard to go against Napier if a team needs one shot to win a game. Ollie said earlier Monday he doesn't hesitate to put the ball in his senior's hands for a late-game shot. It shows.
David Butler II/USA TODAY SportsFlorida stopped Shabazz Napier's initial shot, but he got one more look after fielding a tipped rebound.
Florida coach Billy Donovan did everything he could to try and fluster Napier. Scottie Wilbekin, his lone point guard, was down with an ankle injury in the final three minutes, so the Gators went to a 1-3-1 zone. They attempted to trap Napier on the final possession and did a good job forcing a bad shot, but DeAndre Daniels tipped the ball back and Napier got it for a last-second shot in perfect position facing the basket.
"We got him to take a very, very difficult off-balance shot,'' Donovan said. "The guy that won the game for him was DeAndre Daniels. He made an unbelievable tip out, off balance, which kept the ball alive.''
True, but Napier still had to have the presence to bury the shot.
"Whenever we need a big shot, he makes that,'' Ollie said. "Whenever we need a play to be made, he made that. He's got so much heart. Hopefully, America is starting to look at him as that man. He's one of the big-time players to ever put this jersey on and walk on the court at Gampel.''
Napier also converted a four-point play, and tweaked his ankle in the process, to give the Huskies a one-point lead with 33 seconds remaining. Napier made a strong case to be on everyone's All-American watch list heading into the heart of December.
3. The Huskies are more than just Napier: Napier and Ryan Boatright are going to take the big shots in key situations, but UConn has other key contributors. Daniels' tip was the last of seven rebounds for the slender forward, who also finished with 14 points. Niels Giffey hit two critical 3-pointers and continues to be the ultimate glue player. The Huskies got outrebounded by the physical Gators. Ollie said after the game he could use big men with size like Florida's Patric Young -- in the future, but for now, he has thin forwards who he says "have heart.'' And that is working for the Huskies in late-game situations.
AP Photo/Bill Shettle/CSMFlorida senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin left Monday's game with a right ankle injury.
4. The Gators can't afford bad news on Wilbekin's ankle: Wilbekin -- who has already missed six games because of a suspension -- was erratic Monday, scoring 15 points and hitting two 3-pointers but committing three turnovers. Donovan said after the game he had no idea on the status of the point guard's turned right ankle. The Gators are still without star freshman guard Kasey Hill, who has a high-ankle sprain. Hill averaged 10 points in the four games he played. Donovan said Hill is probably two more weeks away from returning. Hill's game is speed and he hasn't been able to do anything because of the ankle injury. If Wilbekin is out for any extended period, the Gators will have to look to Dorian Finney-Smith or Michael Frazier to handle the ball some.
5. The Gators can be an SEC contender if healthy and eligible: Florida showed tremendous grit Monday. Casey Prather was unstoppable at times, scoring 19 points and grabbing seven boards. Young and Will Yeguete contributed in a variety of ways. If McDonald's All-American Chris Walker gets eligible (he has one online class left to finish), the Gators could have a formidable frontline. If Wilbekin and Hill get healthy and Finney-Smith and Frazier contribute on the perimeter, it would give the Gators more than enough to challenge Kentucky in the SEC. There are a lot of ifs, but it's still early.
NEW YORK -- Arizona freshman Aaron Gordon watched the Champions Classic two weeks ago, like most college basketball fans.
After studying the teams -- notably the three led by freshmen -- he realized that he was in the perfect spot at Arizona.
"The offense runs through the freshmen,'' said Gordon of Kentucky, Duke and Kansas. "At Arizona, it's more equal-opportunity and more team-oriented.''
And that's why Arizona -- at least as November ends -- looks more like a potential national champion than Duke after a 72-66 NIT Season Tip-Off victory at a raucous Madison Square Garden on Friday night.
Duke has arguably the top freshman and maybe the best player in the country in Jabari Parker. But Arizona has the more complete team.
Al Bello/Getty ImagesArizona's Nick Johnson was named MVP of the NIT Season Tip-Off.
Parker, and offensive partner Rodney Hood, are the focus for Duke. But if they're not touching the ball, there is cause for concern. How much Duke can rely on Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon or anyone inside beside Parker to get a bucket is unknown. And the defense is still a work in progress after giving up 90 points to a depleted -- and at the time one-win -- Vermont team last week.
Gordon is an integral part of Arizona's team, a definitive difference-maker, but he's hardly the reason the Wildcats win.
"I'm the glue guy on a team that has talent," Gordon said. "You can stick me in the middle of all these pieces and we have all the potential in the world.''
Arizona has met every challenge so far this season: Winning at San Diego State at one of the more hostile road venues, coming back from down 19 to Drexel here Wednesday and being down six to Duke with 13 minutes left before turning it into a 10-point lead.
Gordon guarded Parker for long stretches Friday, and helped lead Parker to his five turnovers and 7-of-21 shooting. But Arizona coach Sean Miller put Brandon Ashley and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on him, too. Those are three players with length and defensive activity, where most teams might be lucky to have two. Oh, and the Wildcats have a developing power player in the half court in Kaleb Tarczewski.
That's just up front. Arizona now has a go-to, get-a-bucket player in late-possession situations in Nick Johnson, a backup shooter in Gabe York and the one piece that was desperately lacking a year ago in point guard T.J. McConnell, a transfer from Duquesne. McConnell went from one of the worst high-level programs to one of the best. He sat out last season, got stronger, more comfortable and has suddenly assumed a leadership role (eight assists and two turnovers Friday).
Ask any of the Arizona players where the difference lies from last season in terms of legitimately chasing a title, and they all point to McConnell.
"You have to start with the point guard,'' Johnson said. "It's a big role, especially when it's played right. T.J. is a pass-first point guard. He makes the right pass. He's developed over the years and he's going to be crucial to our team.''
Al Bello/Getty ImagesCoach Sean Miller's Wildcats are undefeated on the season.
The Wildcats displayed that flip-a-switch mentality in both games here this week. When they were down big to Drexel or even multiple possessions to Duke, which seemed like more, they were never rattled.
"We're a complete team,'' McConnell said. "We can guard at every position. Not just one player is trying to score for us.''
Gordon echoed that the talent means the Wildcats are never out of the game. The Wildcats, added Ashley, have "so many dudes who can do so many things.''
Miller, who said he lost to Duke as an assistant at NC State so many times that he can't even count, also fell to the Blue Devils in the Elite Eight as an assistant at Xavier in 2004 and as Xavier's head coach years later in a regular-season game at the Meadowlands. Now, he has won two in a row over Duke. Arizona knocked off Duke in the 2011 Sweet 16 before losing to Kemba Walker and UConn in the Elite Eight. That game had more meaning, obviously, but this one, at this time, creates even more of a feeling of confidence in the Wildcats' title chase.
"It obviously raises (our confidence), and Duke speaks for itself,'' said McConnell.
"But it doesn't change anything,'' said Johnson. "It just adds to our belief. We know what our talent is. We knew it four months ago when we were practicing to get ready for the season. Now this verifies it a little bit. We're just seven games into the season. We were 14-0 last season.''
This year is different, though. The talent isn't the same. The roles are more defined. The early-season competition doesn't compare, with more to come at Michigan on Dec. 14 before the Pac-12 favorites are every conference team's target for two-plus months.
"It was a big test and we passed,'' said Johnson. "I honestly didn't think we played our best basketball of the season and we still won.''
And that's why Arizona was and is one of the favorites to win the title.