Connecticut and Michigan State are proof that patience is a virtue.
The outlook for the Huskies and Spartans, who will meet in the East regional final, could have changed drastically if not key players learning how to recover from disappointments.
Two years ago, UConn was the defending national champion and starting No. 4 in the preseason. Shabazz Napier was expected to take over a team filled with talent — Jeremy Lamb, Andre Drumond and Alex Oriakhi — but that never materialized in a 20-14 season.
Napier could have transferred after that season, given that the coach who build the program, Jim Calhoun, retired. Napier decided to stay for his junior season, saying he owed it to the university.
“I didn't know how to be a leader out there at that point,” Napier said. “I was doing things that I wasn't definitely happy about. I isolated myself a lot when things were down. I didn't learn how to be a leader, even though I had one of the greatest leaders in front of me my freshman year (Kemba Walker).”
Now a senior, Napier is the unquestioned focal point on a team a game away from the Final Four.
Michigan State’s adversity wasn’t quite as drawn out, but nearly as devastating. A series of injuries contributed to a 5-7 finish to the regular season. Not until the Big Ten Tournament did the veteran Spartans return to their early season potential.
At one point this season, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson came to blows over a forgotten practice before a game against Penn State.
“It is funny (they are playing well now) because I think at times they were more adversarial,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “We had the big Penn State incident, which really wasn't nearly as big as it seemed, but that really started the turnaround. So it's kind of funny how they're having success together, when it all started out they both probably had one of their best games over a little scuffle.”
Michigan State vs. Connecticut
Time: 2:10 p.m. Eastern
Announcers: Verne Lundquist, Bill Raftery
Region: East (New York)
Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox: Michigan State 72-65
Braden Gall: Michigan State 82-69
Mitch Light: Michigan State 68-66
Nathan Rush: Michigan State 75-70
How Michigan State got here:
Adreian Payne was one of the stories of the round of 64 with 41 points against Delaware, but Branden Dawson has been the key in the last two games. Dawson missed nine games midseason after he suffered a broken hand punching a desk in frustration. He came back for 26 points and nine rebounds against Harvard and 25 points and 10 rebounds against Virginia.
How Connecticut got here:
The Huskies have played solid defense in the NCAA Tournament, forcing 16 turnovers against Villanova and rendering Iowa State’s stars DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim ineffective. While Shabazz Napier is perhaps the most indispensable players in the country, others have taken a bigger role in the Tournament. Napier still accounts for 27.5 percent of UConn’s scoring in the last three games, but Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels have been more involved.
Key for Michigan State to get to the Final Four: Slow down Shabazz Napier
Expect Michigan State to study Louisville’s games against UConn’s superstar guard. The Cardinals held Napier in check (3 of 17 from 3) in the Huskies’ last two losses of the season. Even if UConn has been more than the Shabazz Show in the NCAA Tournament, he’s the focal point of the offense. Limit him, and the Huskies are in a world of trouble.
Key for Connecticut to get to the Final Four: Own everything from the free throw line out
Despite the win over Iowa State, this is still a team that struggles to score around the basket. For the Huskies to beat Michigan State, UConn needs to continue to stay hot from the 3-point line (39.4 percent this season) and free throw line (76.9 percent). Both of these are the territory of Napier.
Player to watch: DeAndre Daniels, Connecticut
Perhaps the absence of Georges Niang for Iowa State played a major role in Daniels’ breakout in the Sweet 16, but he’ll be worth watching again. Daniels erupted for 27 points and nine rebounds against the Cyclones.