|The Huskies have an interesting season ahead, one that will be led by Napier. (US Presswire)|
Shabazz Napier wasn't ready to be a leader. That's not why UConn struggled as much as it did last season, but it certainly contributed to the Huskies underachieving and barely getting into the NCAA tournament despite boasting at least two first-round draft picks.
Kemba Walker was gone. He was everything for Jim Calhoun -- the star and also the guy who everyone looked to for leadership. Then it was almost Napier's turn by default. Lamb wasn't a leader; neither was freshman Drummond -- and junior big man Alex Oriakhi certainly couldn't lead from the bench.
So it was left to Napier -- and it didn't work.
"I take full responsibility for last year," Napier said. "I wasn't ready to be a leader. I didn't know how to talk to teammates the right way. We all make mistakes as leaders."
Napier had his hands full last season, making the adjustment to a leadership role -- and also as a full-time point guard. He had always been considered more of a scorer, but now his duties included getting everyone the ball on a team loaded with weapons. At times, he was terrific. But there wasn't much consistency, and much of the time he struggled.
Napier, who wound up averaging 13 points and 5.8 assists per game a year ago, could have bolted and transferred after the NCAA hit UConn with sanctions that included a postseason ban for this season. However, he decided to come back and finish his career in Storrs. Then he was hit with another blow after Calhoun announced his retirement late in the summer.
"I was shocked when Coach retired," Napier said. "At that point, I was scared. I didn't know what I wanted to do. I saw it coming, but I didn't. It was the hardest week of my life. … When he told the team, it hit me like a rock. I started tearing up."
Then assistant Kevin Ollie was given a one-year deal.
"I'm still upset about it," Napier said. "But there's nothing I can do. We all feel like he should have gotten a longer contract. We also feel like we need to win games for him."
Napier is recovering from a stress fracture and said he was about 85 percent a week or so ago at Big East Media Day. He wants to turn the page on last season, even though there's no NCAA tournament this year.
"It's been a rollercoaster," Napier said. "We were ranked high, and we thought we were better than we were."
Napier didn't come out and say it, but he certainly hinted that this team has the chemistry that last year's group lacked. Part of that might be improved leadership on his end.
"I'm going to be different this year," he said. "I think I've matured as a leader, but it doesn't mean anything until I go out and do it."
The team is far from intimidating on paper, but UConn still has some talent -- especially on the perimeter. There's Napier, Ryan Boatright, freshman Omar Calhoun and talented sophomore DeAndre Daniels. The key might be up front, where there are major question marks now that Drummond (NBA) and Oriakhi (Missouri) are gone.
"I think we're going to surprise a lot of people," Napier said.
That might not be all that difficult, as this Huskies team was tabbed to finish ninth this season. No, not in the country -- in the Big East.