It would be unfair to say that Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier won round one in his duel against Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin this season. But not inaccurate.
Napier’s middle-range jumper fell through before the buzzer, giving the Huskies a 65-64 victory on Dec. 2 at Connecticut.
But the shot wasn’t made over Wilbekin, who was in the locker room receiving treatment for a sprained ankle.
“I didn’t see it because there wasn’t a TV in the room,” Wilbekin said. “I just knew what the score was, and I knew it was a disappointing loss.”
The star guards will be aligned against each other with higher stakes Saturday. Florida-Connecticut tips off the Final Four with a spot in Monday’s title game to the winner, and all eyes will be on the players who provide great but different strengths.
Napier has been the talk of the NCAA Tournament, voted the most outstanding player of the East Region. Of the teams that will take the floor at AT&T Stadium, none depends on one player more than the Huskies with Napier.
But it’s not just his scoring, a 23.3-point NCAA Tournament average that’s more than five points above his regular-season mark.
“I call him my unpaid coach,” Huskies coach Kevin Ollie said. “He’s taken ownership of this team.”
And Napier welcomes all that comes with that distinction. Time to take a big shot? Napier will decide who takes it, and more often than not, he will.
“He has the ball in his hands,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “He creates a lot for himself and for others.”
That can be Wilbekin’s game. He wants the ball in his hands in tense moments, and has taken plenty of crunch-time shots.
Florida spreads the wealth more than Connecticut. The Gators don’t require scoring production from Wilbekin, who averages 13.4 points a game.
A team approach will also become necessary on the defensive end.
“To put Scottie on an island, and expect him all by himself to handle him, Shabazz is just too gifted offensively,” Donovan said. “It can’t be Scottie versus Shabazz.”
Except that’s how the first meeting was billed, and that’s the focus this time.
Napier’s game-winner against the Gators gave him 26 points. The only other player to score that many against Florida’s defense this season was Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins. But Florida won that game.
Wilbekin was chosen SEC player of the year, Napier won the same honor in the American Athletic Conference.
“I’m confident, and I’m sure he is too,” Wilbekin said.
Florida, however, finds itself in the rare position of avenging one of its two losses, one that pained Wilbekin in more ways than one.
“I like guarding guys that are a challenge to guard,” Wilbekin said.