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Mike Lopresti | | April 4, 2014

Lopresti: Stories collide

  Shabazz Napier stayed at Connecticut his senior year because of a promise he made to his mother.

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Sign in, Senior No. 1.

He came back his junior season because he figured he owed Connecticut.

He came back his senior season because he figured he owed his mother.

Loyalty, commitment, a sense of duty. And now, the Final Four.

What’s not to like about the Shabazz Napier story?

“I feel like I said a promise and I had to keep it,” he was saying Friday of the vow he made to his mother to graduate. “She always did that with us. She kept all her promises. I have no regret in coming back.”

Sign in, Senior No. 2.

He was one twitch from his Florida career crumbling into dust, after he got himself suspended a second time for unspecified team violations. His coach brought him in and delivered a stark message: This is not working. Transfer, and you’ll get a recommendation. Stay, and there will be a gauntlet of disciplinary measures to pass, such as moving back home with you folks, including your father, the minister. Your choice.

Atonement, accountability, the sense to take advantage of a second chance. And now, the Final Four.

What’s not to like about the Scottie Wilbekin story?

“I couldn’t ask for a better season,” he was saying Friday, “Obviously, I’ve had some bumps I have stumbled across.”

Connecticut vs. Florida on Saturday night. Napier vs. Wilbekin. Dueling guards. Dueling tales of perseverance.

Here’s a guess. If the Huskies are national champions Monday night, Napier will be named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.  If the Florida Gators are champions, it will be Wilbekin. They both have driven their teams to this high ground.

Conventional wisdom holds that it is now a game ruled by underclassmen, who get their 15 minutes of fame and then depart. Say hello to the Kentucky Wildcats. It has been 12 years since a senior was named MOP of the Final Four, back when Juan Dixon led Maryland.

But there is still room for the veteran leads the way. The senior who has survived for this very moment. They are rarer today. Usually, there is not enough time for all this to happen.

Napier:  "The opportunity is sitting in front of us. We’ve got to grasp it. I don’t want it to leave my hands. I’m going to do whatever it takes. I’m a senior, and there’s no coming back for me.”

Wilbekin: “It’s been an up-and-down road and journey. ... It was extremely hard. The hardest thing I’ve ever been through. But looking back, it was worth it.”

They are aware of each other, of course. They know one another’s strengths and stories. They understand that Saturday’s game will be a lot more complicated than one guard against another. But still.

Napier: “Of course, I’m going to get that (question). Him versus him. It’s found me. I understand it. I’m here just trying to win games, I’m not here trying to compete one-on-one.”

Wilbekin: “I can’t just guard him by myself. All the screens I’m going to have to run through, I’m going to need help from teammates.”

Napier on Wilbekin: “He can do a lot of things that a lot of folks playing can’t do.”

Wilbekin on Napier: “Just everything he can do, and how good he does it, is what makes him good.”

They met once before. Sort of. Florida went to Connecticut in December, but Wilbekin was in the locker room with ice on an injured ankle when Napier shot, missed badly, had the rebound deflected back to him, then hit the 3-point buzzer-beater to give the Gators their last defeat.

Napier: “I put up a lousy shot. ... when you get a second opportunity to ice the game, you’ve got to make sure to make it.”

Wilbekin: “I saw the clock go to zero, and I heard the crowd.”

But their paths nearly never crossed at all. Both could easily have been somewhere else this weekend, their careers at these schools a memory.

Napier would not leave after his sophomore year -- as several teammates did -- when word came that Connecticut faced a one-year postseason ban because of academic sanctions. He wanted to make up for a poor season, when he was too withdrawn to fill a role as leader.

“The first battle is within,” coach Kevin Ollie would say this year of his unquestioned floor general. “He’s conquered within.”

Nor would Napier leave for the NBA draft after his junior year. He saw the look on his mother’s face, when she reminded him of his promise to get a degree.

“She’s been there all my life. She had many excuses to give up, but she didn’t,” he said. “It’s a special thing to get your degree. That’s something no one can ever take away from you.”

Wilbekin could have transferred, when Billy Donovan sat across from him and presented a take-or-leave-it option. “He had lost all his credibility,” Donovan said. “He had a lack of awareness of how choices and decisions he made affected or impacted other people, and he never understood that.”

But he learned it. And he stayed.

“I believe it was overblown a little bit because of how good a story it is,” Wilbekin said Friday. “But he did say that if I wanted to transfer, `You can, and I’ll help you.’ But if I wanted to stay, it would have to be my choice, and it wouldn’t be easy.”

Last summer meant living at home, working out by himself, finding his own way. But he had no second thoughts.

“It’s all been worth it, to see the place I’m at now with my teammates.

“It helped me play with a freer mind.”

So Saturday they meet, two young men who gazed at an open door and decided to stay put. Kentucky’s freshmen might have the spotlight in the second game, but two seniors will run the show in the first.

Ollie on Napier, and how he compares with Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb, who led the Huskies’ 2011 title charge: “He’s his own man. He’s been through a lot. None of those guys have been through a ban and had the options of leaving. Kemba didn’t have to deal with that. Jeremy didn’t have to deal with that.”

Donovan on Wilbekin: “He’s a guy that loves challenges and in his own way, what I was presenting in front of him was a real, real challenge, because I had kind of painted a picture that said `I don’t believe you can do it or will do it.’ I said time will tell. And I think he thrived on that.

“The story grows to be greater and greater. ... He deserves all the credit because he’s the one that did it.”

With freshmen, you get flashing lights and loud noise. But with seniors, you get journeys. This is their Final Four, too.

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