Maybe UConn doesn't need just one individual leading willing to shoulder the load during crunch time. Sure, it's a luxury to have a player who's willing and able to take a game over at any time, but not many teams are awarded with a player like that.
In the case of the 2012 UConn Huskies, they have bi-partisan leadership, and through two Big East Tournament games, it seems to be working.
A leader needs to be willing and able to take over a game when need be. before this week, Shabazz Napier seemed only willing, and Jeremy Lamb only able.
Shabazz Napier said he wanted to be the leader. "I try to tell the guys, I feel as if I’m their best leader. Sometimes they give me a chance, sometimes they don’t." That's what he said after a disappointing loss to Rutgers on January 9th.
He questioned his team's lack of heart, and voiced his desire to be anointed the leader. “I hate to say it — I gotta question a lot of these guys’ hearts,” he said following a 15-point loss to Marquette on February 15th,“…Simple stuff – just quitting. It doesn’t look like UConn basketball."
Napier might have relayed his message in an uncontroversial manner, but he's starting to get his point across, and he's doing with his actions instead of his words.
Before fouling out in overtime of UConn's 71-67 win over West Virginia in the second round of the Big East Tournament, the polarizing guard scored 26 points, distributed six assists, grabbed four rebounds, and had three steals and three blocks. When the Mountaineers stretched their second half lead to nine points, it was Napier who led the ferocious comeback with steals, 3-pointers and numerous displays of athleticism.
"I thought Shabazz was close to magnificent." Said Jim Calhoun in the post game press conference, "I thought Jeremy stepped up like the big time player that he is."
Jeremy Lamb followed up his 25-point performance in the first round of the Big East Tournament with 22 points and eight rebounds. But after scoring 12 of the Huskies 26 points in the first half, he want silent for much of the second half. Luckily for Lamb, Napier was there to pick up the slack. When Napier fouled fouled out in overtime, Lamb returned the favor by propelling the team to victory with a big 3-pointer.
"I knew we needed a score, and in the game yesterday, Coach told me to shoot, and I didn't take a shot. You know, Coach was just saying, I want you shooting the ball."
Lamb's 3-pointer was the last field goal of the game, and the eventual game-winner, but due to his unselfish nature, he needed to be willed into demanding the attention. "I told Jeremy, you've got to be willing to shoot now, you've got to be looking for hits," said Napier, "and when he came off that curve, there was no doubt in my mind it was going in because that's what he works on in practice, that's what we work on in practice".
So Jeremy is evolving as a scorer who demands the ball and Shabazz is learning to lead by example. The Huskies have two capable leaders, not one.
But despite this, the question will always be asked. "I'm going to tell you and Shabazz is going to tell you and coach is going to tell you, last year and this year, two completely different deals. This is not Kemba Walker. He's a totally different player. In the last week that I've been around Shabazz, he's a different player than he was three weeks ago. He's a different player." Coach Calhoun is right, Lamb and Napier are different players. Not just compared to last year, but also compared to last month.
But if it's not a question about comparison, it's a question about whether or not the Huskies can do it again. "I don't think it can happen again, but then again, I said it could never happen in the first place." Said Calhoun.
"Would we like to give it a shot? Would we like to take a stab at it? Everybody out there would. Everybody out there would. We're just going to try to play tomorrow's basketball game to take it where it may."
With Napier and Lamb leading this team, they seem to be headed in the right direction.