Napier's star still shining

UConn's Shabazz Napier was named a finalist for the USBWA National Player of the Year award on Thursday.
UConn's Shabazz Napier was named a finalist for the USBWA National Player of the Year award on Thursday. Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP Photo

With just over a week left in the regular season, the race for American Athletic Conference Player of the year is extremely close.

You can make a strong case for any of the three talented frontrunners.

UConn's Shabazz Napier, Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick and Louisville's Russ Smith, all seniors, are the driving force behind their respective team's success. They're also all in the running for All-American and other national honors.

The United States Basketball Writers Association selected all three stars for the field of 15 finalists for its Oscar Robertson National Player of the Year Trophy.

Napier and Kilpatrick will face off for the second time this season Saturday afternoon when UConn hosts No. 11 Cincinnati at noon at the XL Center in Hartford.

The first-place Bearcats (24-4, 13-2) are coming off a week break while the Huskies (22-6, 10-5) rallied from nine-point second half deficit to win at South Florida, 61-56, on Wednesday.

Once again, Napier wore the hero's cape, scoring 13 of his game-high 17 points in the final 11 minutes. He also added seven assists and four rebounds.

"When Shabazz Napier plays great, they're great," Cronin said during a Thursday press conference with the Cincinnati media. "It's very similar to us with SK (Sean Kilpatrick). He can beat you by himself. He's logged a lot of miles.

"You've just got to hope that Saturday is not one of the days where he gets 35 on you like he did against Memphis a few weeks ago."

Cincinnati frustrated Napier in the first meeting on Feb. 6, forcing the UConn guard to earn every one of his 16 points. Napier converted just 5 of 19 from the field, including 2 of 12 from 3-point land in a 63-58 loss.

The Bearcats could really focus in on stopping Napier because junior DeAndre Daniels missed that game with an ankle injury.

"We did a great job on him the first time we played," Cronin said. "But knowing how great of a player he is, he's going to be looking for redemption. Not just a win. Knowing him, you've got to think that he's going to be geared up to play against us on Saturday.

"So we've got to do maybe even a better job to make sure we don't let him go crazy against us, because he's more than capable. We have to make everything hard on him and try to not let him ever find a rhythm."

Kilpatrick is equally as capable of going crazy. He had a dominating performance against UConn, finishing with 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists in 40 minutes.

Cronin expects UConn to alter its defensive game plan against Kilpatrick on Saturday.

"When you look at the last Connecticut game, I'm sure they think SK kind of took control of the game a little bit in the second half," Cronin said. "So you've got to think they're going to be more in tune to not letting him beat them."

Not an easy task when talking about defending Kilpatrick and Napier, who rank first and second respectively in scoring overall in the AAC at 20.5 points and 17.8 points per game. Smith was third at 17.5 points heading into No. 7 Louisville's game against Temple on Thursday.

Of the three worthy AAC Player of the Year candidates, Napier is the only one to lead his team in scoring, rebounding (5.9) and assists (5.5).

Saturday's spotlight game will give both players another chance to state their case.

Cronin is happy that Kilpatrick is in the running for some prestigious awards, too, including the Oscar Robertson honor named after Cincinnati's all-time great.

"It means a lot to be a finalist for the Oscar Robertson award, being that Oscar Robertson has watched him play for the last four years," Cronin said. "I would think of all the player of the year awards that's the one to a Cincinnati player would mean the most.

"He's more than deserving of his nomination for the award. I think he's in the top five if I was in the voting. Being as objective as I can, I say that."

g.keefe@theday.com

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