Published April 27. 2013 4:00AM
UConn's chances of regaining a firm foothold on the national stage improved significantly Friday when Shabazz Napier decided to return for his senior season.
Simply put, no player impacted the program more last season than Napier.
Napier, a 6-foot-1 guard, served as court maestro, helping orchestrate a surprising 20-10 season, despite the Huskies dealing with a postseason ban.
An All-Big East first team selection, he averaged a team-best 17.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2.0 steals while playing a team-high 37.2 minutes per game.
"I think Shabazz's decision is great for him and great for the university," coach Kevin Ollie said in a released statement. "I believe that first and foremost, it will give him a chance to earn his degree, which is something I know he'll really cherish.
"At the same time, he'll continue to hone his skills as a lead guard and contribute to us continuing the success of UConn basketball, but also he will keep cultivating the kind of atmosphere I want our student-athletes to be around."
Judging from mock drafts, Napier made a smart choice to stay in school instead of entering the NBA draft. He was considered a late second round pick at best.
Napier talked to his family, teammates, coaching staff and retired coach Jim Calhoun, with whom he spent many hours with seeking advice, before reaching a decision. His mother stressed the importance of getting his degree.
"Most importantly, I'd like to thank my mother, who has inspired me to be the best that I can be and to try and be a great a role model for those who look up to me," Napier said. "I am very much looking forward to getting closer to receiving my college degree, as well as becoming a stronger leader for my teammates on and off the court.
"We think we have a great team for next season and we're excited about playing for a conference championship and in the NCAA tournament."
UConn got a taste of life without Napier in early March when a right foot injury forced him to miss consecutive road games at Cincinnati and South Florida. The Huskies went 0-2.
Napier returned for the season finale, finishing with 16 points, eight rebounds, four assists and four steals in a 63-59 overtime win over Providence. He led the Huskies to a school-record five overtime wins. Overall, he scored 55 points in nine overtime periods.
With Napier's backcourt partner Ryan Boatright and blossoming star DeAndre Daniels also electing to return and the addition of a promising incoming recruiting class, the Huskies will be a contender in the new American Athletic Conference and a candidate to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
Napier, Boatright (15.4 points) and Daniels (12.1) combined for most points per game (44.6) than any trio in the Big East last season.
"I'm pleased that all three of them will continue their education next year and their development as young men," Ollie said. "As far as basketball is concerned, all of them improved last season and I expect that to continue through next year. We're all looking forward to what's ahead of us."