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Kevin Duffy: Shabazz may be the man but Boatright key to Huskies' success

Updated 1:18 pm, Saturday, April 5, 2014

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  • Connecticut guard Ryan  Boatright cuts a strand of the netting on the rim after his team  defeated Michigan State 60-54 during a regional final at the NCAA  college basketball tournament, Sunday, March 30, 2014, in New York. (AP  Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Connecticut guard Ryan Boatright cuts a strand of the netting on the rim after his team defeated Michigan State 60-54 during a regional final at the NCAA college basketball tournament, Sunday, March 30, 2014, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

 

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ARLINGTON, Texas -- He settled his Huskies versus Villanova, a veteran guard lifting the youngsters with calming leadership and timely buckets. He hit the dagger 3-pointer versus Michigan State. He decided to stay when he could have left and, truthfully, may have been much closer to leaving than anyone had known.

He is a stud guard playing his best ball in late March and early April.

He is, of course, Shab-- ... Boatright?

Wait a minute.

He's Ryan Boatright?

"Everyone is going to say `Shabazz, Shabazz, Shabazz," said UConn walk-on Tor Watts, Boatright's best friend on the team, "This is the team. Without Boatright, there's no Final Four."

As anyone will concede, there's plenty reason for Shabazz, Shabazz, Shabazz. The guy's one of the best in program history. Maybe top five. Boatright, the other guard, is not.

Boatright is UConn basketball in microcosm, though.

"I mean, I done had a crazy basketball career, man," he said, shaking his head and laughing.

At the beginning, Boatright was suspended six games for receiving improper benefits. In his first career outing, versus Florida State in the Bahamas, he sank three straight free throws with 7.3 seconds remaining to force overtime. He was sidelined again during a second eligibility review in January. Then, a review of UConn's grades sidelined its entire team from the 2013 postseason. Oh yeah, Jim Calhoun retired. Almost forgot that. And conference realignment? Yeah, that wasn't fun.

So here's Ryan Boatright, through three college commitments (USC as an eighth-grader, West Virginia and finally UConn), through a few suspensions, through an ongoing flirtation with the NBA. Here's Ryan Boatright, undersized, tough as they come, a little arrogant with a lot of Calhoun -- me versus the world -- in him.

Yet the Boatright-UConn parallels don't apply everywhere. Not to real life tragedy, at least: In February, he received a call with news that his cousin, Arin Williams, had been murdered in the bathroom of a taco restaurant in his hometown of Aurora, Ill. Williams lived with the Boatright family. He was more like a brother, Boatright has said.

Although he played, wearing the initials "AW" on his right cheek versus Memphis, Boatright was shaken up for weeks. Couldn't sleep much. Couldn't focus on basketball, or anything, really.

"I love basketball and I care about it, but there was a certain point in time where I just didn't care," he said Friday.

"I didn't get over it, but I started getting some sleep and starting thinking that (Williams) wouldn't want me to do what I was doing. He would want me to (work on) my craft and continue to chase my dream and contribute to my team."

Unlike almost any other college player, Boatright has openly discussed his dream -- the NBA -- since his arrival.

"If you know Boatright, his personality is just like, he's not scared to speak his mind," Watts said, "and a lot of people sometimes take that the wrong way."

He really almost did leave for the pros after his freshman season. His high school coach, Wendell Jeffries, said he was "very close" to making the decision, but added he's been waiting for the "right people" to project him as a first round pick.

"If you're a freshman, you need to average like 10 or 11 points and you're a lottery pick," Boatright said. "I came in and had a crazy freshman year. When I actually got to play, I was killin' it, as they say."

Even though his numbers increased as a sophomore (10.4 points to 15.4 points), his draft stock did not. Jeffries believes Boatright wanted to make the jump. He's long talked about helping his family. In Memphis, when asked about writing his cousin's initials on his cheek, Boatright said, "It was just to remind myself why I go so hard with this sport -- to get my family up out of there."

But he returned to Storrs, and from his high school coach's observations, has learned a lot from Napier.

Hell, Napier even taught him how to fish.

"I don't know what his name is on the Discovery Channel, but (Napier) thinks he's that guy," Boatright said, laughing. "Jeremy Wade or something like that? He thinks he's Jeremy Wade."

If Napier is J-Wade, then Boatright is Paul Boote. And if you don't understand that analogy -- if you're really so oblivious that you don't know Boote co-wrote "Somewhere Down the Crazy River" with Wade -- then perhaps this one works: Napier as LeBron, Boatright as D-Wade.

Boatright knows he's the sidekick. He also knows that roles change.

"Shabazz is the man right now," Boatright said. "He's Batman. When he goes to the league, he ain't gonna be Batman. His time is going to come around."

Boatright continued: "You've got to understand that and there can't be jealousy or selfishness. It's all about the team. We all win and we all lose."

To be clear, the chemistry between Napier and Boatright is at an all-time high. They knock heads sometimes, he admits, but they "want the best for each other."

And through this run, when Napier hasn't played hero, Boatright has saved the day. He had a team-high eight points in the first half versus St. Joseph's, keeping UConn afloat as Napier struggled. He hit a corner 3-pointer on the final possession, trimming the Hawks' lead from eight to five at the break. Surely, it ranks among UConn's five most crucial shots of the tournament.

When Napier sat with two fouls versus Villanova, his team trailing 19-9, Boatright told them,

"You're all Division I players for a reason. Ya'll can play this game, too. Don't put your head down and don't panic."

The Huskies came roaring back, holding `Nova without a field goal for 15 straight possessions, to take a 25-21 lead.

Against Michigan State, Boatright told Watts before the game, "I'm gonna lock them up."

Keith Appling was in a world of trouble versus Boatright; his relentless ball pressure wore on the Spartan guards. On the other end, Boatright's corner 3-pointer gave UConn a 49-39 edge. The Huskies held on, and when it set in, the reality of a Final Four berth, Boatright strutted past the UConn bench, flexing. He found Napier in the paint, and Shabazz slapped his chest once. Boatright jumped; Napier met him mid-air.

At that moment, it was onto the NCAA's biggest fish: The Gators.

kduffy@newstimes.com;

@KevinRDuffy