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Thursday, October 23, 2014


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Column: Stakes are higher than last season's UConn matchup


Harris, Napier will be key players to watch on opposing benches






<p>Sheehan</p>

Sheehan

NEW YORK — You don't have to look far for the last time MSU and UConn butted heads on the court. Who could forget the game that kicked off last season?

Hold on — maybe you do have to look far. Germany is across the Atlantic Ocean, after all. 

On the surface, this game is anything but the same. Last season, the meeting kicked off the regular season, and on Sunday, the stakes will be raised — someone's season will be coming to a close. 

But take a look at the roster, and you will see how similar this game is. MSU has only lost one starter as they waved goodbye to Derrick Nix, and UConn has put 3-point specialist Niels Giffey into the starting mix in place of Omar Calhoun. Other than those two tweaks, the Elite Eight game will be a reflection of what we saw last year. 

Or will it? Even though they nearly have the same lineups, how much have these two rich programs changed? 

It might not be a surprise, but it turns out 505 days can even change two teams despite the same names being printed in the program. 

Take Gary Harris for example, who started his career in the worst way possible by forgetting the first play of the season.

Yes, the same Gary Harris that is MSU's go-to guard today was clueless on the court to start last season. 

"I had a lot of nerves that game," Harris said. "I have become a lot more comfortable and experienced since that game."

Harris wasn't the only one who has grown. This year's MSU team has heard more talk about how old and experienced they are than a retirement home, but last year they were still a group of young guns.

"We were kind of a young team, and a lot of uncertainty of who we were," Harris said. "We're very comfortable with our identity now, and I'm sure they are too."

Over in Storrs, Conn., a senior guard has grown up too. I'm not talking about just any guard though — I'm talking about American Athletic Conference Player of the Year Shabazz Napier.

Through the years Napier has blossomed into a leader that now accepts mistakes. It sounds like a simple adjustments to make, but head coach Kevin Ollie said it's a big factor in "giving away his gift" as a leader. 

"Whenever something comes up, he goes to the next play," Ollie said. "He recovers better now than he did in his sophomore year." 

It's the same matchup on paper, but with a mature Harris and a leading Napier, tomorrow's game will be anything but a replay. 

Matt Sheehan is a State News basketball reporter. Reach him at msheehan@statenews.com.


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