ARLINGTON, Texas – Without a clock in view, there was no telling if midnight had struck when Shabazz Napier disappeared.
In a bustling, exhilarated Connecticut locker room late Monday night, the star of the year and the night and the latest national championship had vanished. Visitors turned to sports information director Phil Chardis, wondering about the senior guard's whereabouts. Chardis turned his hands up. “I don't know where he is,” he said. The moment foretold many more to come: At some point, everyone was going to have to move on without Shabazz.
“It's going to be hard to see him leave,” freshman guard Terrence Samuel said. “I don't know how it's going to feel the next time I'm in a workout and he's not there. I guess I'm just going to have to be the next Shabazz, I'm going to have to do the things he did, talk the way he talked in practice, just so we can have him in spirit.”
Two teams left the national championship game Monday and both headed into offseasons of significant renovation, for entirely different reasons. Connecticut will lose Napier, the heart of its program, and almost have to define itself all over again. Kentucky will likely lose a lot of guys to the NBA, once again overhauling a roster loaded with freshmen and sophomores and replacing it with another roster loaded with youth and potential.
In this way it might be easier to be the Wildcats than the Huskies in the longer term. One works with personnel and personality that is transitory anyway. But for Kentucky, the strain of getting to this year's title game demonstrated that easier doesn't necessarily mean easy. “That'll take care of itself,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said. “It works that way for a lot of our sports – our basketball program is probably a little more unique to that. But you bring in freshmen every year for your programs. Any team you have, you bring new faces and new leaders to your program, it takes a while to figure all that out. Been doing this a long time, see a lot of new faces coming into programs. It takes a while to settle in.”
The Wildcats' list of potential NBA departures is long: Julius Randle, Aaron and Andrew Harrison, James Young, Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein and, who knows, maybe even raw 6-foot-10 freshman Dakari Johnson. The Wildcats' incoming haul of talent is deep: A recruiting class that features four top 40 recruits, including five-star big men Trey Lyles and Karl Towns, as well as a possible new backcourt in shooting guard Devin Booker and diminutive 5-foot-8 point guard Tyler Ulis.
Unless some of the underclassmen wave off the future for another year, it will be more of the same for John Calipari -- add multiple new players and see how they coalesce. As evidenced this March and April, no one can be sure how it will end until it ends. The only certainty would be the temporary havoc if Calipari were to leap to the professional ranks himself, but the rumors of him taking over the Los Angeles Lakers that popped up Monday were swatted down just as quickly.
“Now that's the season's over, it's about the players,” Calipari said. “It's no longer about the program. It's no longer about the team. It's about each individual player on this team. And we'll sit down with each of them and they will make decisions for themselves.”
As for Connecticut, it loses at least two starters and maybe as many as four. Niels Giffey will graduate and DeAndre Daniels may mull a jump to the NBA after what was a sterling NCAA tournament until a title game swoon. But mostly UConn needs guards, especially if Ryan Boatright forgoes his final season to join Napier in pursuit of professional dollars. What the Huskies have in store aims to caulk that hole. Samuel returns after a year in an understudy role. Former five-star recruit Rodney Purvis will be eligible after sitting out a season following a transfer from N.C. State. Junior college transfer Sam Cassell Jr. will be the streaky, at-times volume shooter that his father was. Most intriguing is incoming five-star shooting guard Daniel Hamilton, a 6-foot-6 national top 20 recruit crossing country from Los Angeles to Storrs.
As a whole, that group offers unmistakable promise, but promises nothing. But in winning a national title in his second season – and in his first with his program actually allowed to compete for a national title – Huskies coach Kevin Ollie established a benefit of the doubt for finding the correct mix. “I view us getting back here,” Samuel said. “We're going to have to work hard in the offseason and see where it takes us.” Getting to this Monday night was a chore for both programs, and just about everything could look different for Kentucky and Connecticut when Midnight Madness arrives in the fall. It doesn't make a return trip any easier.