Napier is in the running for AAC Player of the Year honors

UConn's Shabazz Napier drives past Rutgers' Kadeem Jack during the second half of the Huskies' 69-63 victory on March 5 in Storrs.
UConn's Shabazz Napier drives past Rutgers' Kadeem Jack during the second half of the Huskies' 69-63 victory on March 5 in Storrs. Fred Beckham/AP Photo

UConn senior Shabazz Napier has never cared about individual awards.

So Napier isn't spending a second thinking about whether he'll win the tight race for American Athletic Conference men's basketball player of the year.

"I don't care," Napier said Monday. "I'm more invested in winning championships. I'm not into individual awards. I'd rather win a championship.

The ACC will announce its individual award winners, including player of the year, on Wednesday, the first day of the conference tournament in Memphis.

During Monday's conference call, league coaches narrowed the top player competition to three elite guards - Napier, Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick and Louisville's Russ Smith.

"It's a tough call," Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan said.

Any of the three are worthy choices, according to Southern Methodist University coach Larry Brown.

"I put all three names down and there were a couple of others that I considered but their teams weren't quite as successful," Brown said. "I don't know how you choose from any of those guys. I think they'll all be playing somewhere next year and playing at a very high level.

"They're all phenomenal. They're all great leaders, great team guys. They all finished at the top of their conference. That's a really, really tough choice to make."

Statistically speaking, Napier has the edge.

Napier's the only player ranked in the top 15 overall in scoring (17.8 points, 2nd), rebounding (6.0, 13th) and assists (5.2, 2nd). Kilpatrick is the leading scorer at 20.9 points while Smith is fourth in scoring (17.5) and third in assists (4.8).

"Shabazz Napier is as good a player as there is in the country," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. "I've just been so impressed with him."

All three players are locks to be on the All-AAC first team when it is announced today.

"In my mind, we have three first team All-Americans in our league," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said.

But what might hurt Napier's case is that both Kilpatrick and Smith led their respective teams to a share of the regular season conference title. The Huskies finished in a three-way tie for third.

Cronin left no doubt about his choice.

"He made that case over 31 games and 18 conference games, being the leading scorer in the conference on a team that shared the championship," Cronin said of Kilpatrick. "I don't really feel I need to (state his case). I think he did it. He did emphatically."

Central Florida coach Donnie Jones also cast his vote for Kilpatrick.

Challenging road

Fourth-seeded UConn (24-7) has a challenging road to the championship, starting off by playing host Memphis (23-8), the fifth seed, at 9:30 p.m. Thursday in the quarterfinals at FedEx Forum. Both teams received a first round bye.

If the Huskies advance, they could face top-seeded Cincinnati in the semifinals and No. 2 Louisville in the championship.

UConn is coming off its worst loss of the season, falling at Louisville, 81-48, on Saturday.

"We've got a sour taste in our mouth after a defeat at Louisville…," coach Kevin Ollie said. "I look forward for us to get back out in the court. And it's going to be in Memphis and it's going to be against Memphis, but that's a challenge that we'll take on.

"We're going to face it as brothers and we're going to go out there and try a get a victory."

News and notes

The AAC also will announce its all-rookie team today. … The Huskies dropped from 19th to 21st in Monday's Associated Press Top 25 poll. They're one of five AAC teams, joining No. 5 Louisville, No 13 Cincinnati, No. 19 Memphis and No. 25 SMU. "That speaks volumes for the strength of our league," Brown said. … UConn recruit Daniel Hamilton, who attends St. John's Bosco in Bellflower, Calif., was selected to play in the Jordan Brand Classic on April 18 in Brooklyn. … Louisville coach Rick Pitino on Memphis serving as host: "Any time you have a home court, it's a major advantage. It's sort of like playing in the Big East when you play Syracuse in the Garden. But it's something you have to deal with."

g.keefe@theday.com

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