Connecticut's Shabazz Napier drives past Cincinnati's Titus Rubles, right, and Cheikh Mbodj late in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Hartford, Conn., Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. Napier scored a game-high 27 points in his team's 73-66 overtime victory. (AP Photo/Fred Beckham)
When we look back on the 2012-13 season, it won't be the NCAA sanctions that we remember. It'll be how first-year coach Kevin Ollie got the most out of this team long on youth and short on experience. The latest example came Thursday night when UConn outlasted Cincinnati in overtime, 73-66.
One of the hallmarks of Ollie's team is that there are no superstars. In general, that might be taken as a slight but the reality is that it's not a bug, it's a feature. Unlike seasons past, it means that there is never too much reliance on one player -- Kemba Walker in 2011, Jeremy Lamb last season, for example -- but that contributions come from both ends of the bench. In that sense, the division of labor lessens the burden on, say, guard Shabazz Napier.
Not that he would ever admit to enjoying some help. He led all scorers Thursday, dropping 27 on the Bearcats, including 11 in overtime, moving the Huskies to 18-7 on the season and 8-5 in the Big East (good for sixth in the rankings).
It was another gutty performance by one of the country's most underrated players. Unfortunately, unlike Walker two years ago, there will be no national stage for Napier to show off his game.
"If it were possible to get to the tournament, this team would make a crazy run,” Napier said afterwards, via SNY.com. “I think we are so together and the NCAA tournament is going to be missing a great team.
“I see what this team can actually be and do. For us not to play in it, and it not being our fault, it’s so heartbreaking.”
Not surprisingly, Ollie gave Napier a vote of support when he was asked if his point guard deserved Big East National Player of the Year consideration.
"Yeah. Big time, he’s made plays for us,” Ollie said. “We have a lot great players in our league, but he’s right there. If you do not consider him (for) Big East Player of the Year, I don’t know what they are doing and thinking of.”
Something else that didn't go unnoticed: the 11,000-plus fans on hand in Hartford Thursday night.
"The last XL game, and I think the fans were absolutely wonderful," Ollie said. "They kept us going, they kept us in it. When we were down four points, they were cheering just like we were up 20. So I really just want to take a time out to say how much I really appreciate these wonderful fans. Hopefully we can close out Gampel with two home wins."
If it feels like we're coming down the home stretch it's because we are. Each win is bittersweet; it further cements the decision to hire Ollie as the right one, but it also means that the Huskies are one game closer to joining the rest of us on the couch for tournament basketball. It's not fair, but at the end of the day, UConn will be better for it.