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It’s been a process, but Shabazz Napier’s grown into his leadership role

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From Nov. 20th thru Dec. 1st, I’ll be on the road, hitting 21 games in 11 days. To follow along and read my stories from the road, click here.

NEW YORK — It’s Friday night and Madison Square Garden’s packed. Two boisterous fan bases share the stands, ensuring that every basket, every call, gets equal parts cheers and jeers as two top 25 programs trade haymakers in a thrilling, gnaw-your-nails-to-the-quick instant classic on national television.

For some, an environment like that in a game this early in the season could be overwhelming, but not for Shabazz Napier. November basketball doesn’t get to him. UConn may have been bounced in the opening round of the 2012 NCAA tournament and they may have been relegated to the sidelines of the 2013 NCAA tournament, but remember, Napier’s got a national title ring on his finger. He won a Big East tournament title in this very building. He shared a back court with Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb back in 2011, if you recall.

The moment has never gotten to Napier, which is why it shouldn’t surprise you that he made seemingly every big shot for the No. 18 Huskies in their 59-58 win over Indiana, finishing with 27 points and three assists on 10-for-14 shooting. Four times in the final five minutes, Napier made the play that gave the Huskies the lead. There was the three he hit with 4:29 left. There was the three he set up for Deandre Daniels with 3:32 left. There was the jumper he hit with an Indiana defender’s hand in his face with 2:32 left. And, lastly, there was the acrobatic layup he made with 1:35 left that turned out to be the game-winner.

UConn stopped running offense in the second half. Head coach Kevin Ollie put the ball — put his trust, all of it — in the hands of his senior point guard, running him off of ball-screen after ball-screen, and Napier delivered.

“That’s that Mission Hill coming out of him, that Boston. He’s a fighter,” Ollie said after the game. “He relishes the moment. Some people run away form it, but he embraces it.”

That’s not exactly new. Napier has developed a reputation for being a guy that hits big shots in big moments, but that’s not the only reputation that he has built for himself.

Napier’s long been considered a streaky scorer, a guy that can shoot you into a game when he gets into a rhythm and can just as easily shoot you out of a game when he’s struggling. As a sophomore, Napier replaced Kemba at the point for a team that entered the season ranked in the top five in the country. But the Huskies put together one of the most disappointing seasons in program history, struggling their way through a year where they finished under .500 in the Big East and got knocked out of the NCAA tournament in the 8-9 game.

And while it’s unfair to pin the blame for those struggles on Napier, he certainly didn’t do the Huskies any favors as a boom-or-bust scoring guard on a team that needed a steady, sure-handed leader running the show. In six of his first 12 games that season, Napier scored more than 20 points. The other six? He scored in the single-digits. At one point, he missed 16 straight shots from the field. Napier was trying to outwardly prove that he was a leader, but in reality he was a player whose confidence was in the gutter if he missed his first couple of shots or committed a turnover or two.

That’s a problem. How can you be a leader when you can’t move past a mistake that you made six possessions ago?

On Friday night, Napier made plenty of mistakes. He finished with seven turnovers. He went just 3-for-7 from the free throw line, with three of those misses coming in the final ten minutes. In fact, I would argue that Napier really didn’t play all that well for much of the game. He finished with 11 points in the first half because he hit two threes in the final minute to give UConn a 30-24 lead at the break. And he didn’t play his best in the second half until Indiana started to take control midway through the final stanza.

“When I miss free throws, that’s one thing I worry about most,” Napier said. “That and turnovers. Sometimes when I miss them, my head wanders off. Coach Ollie, he says to just forget about it, it happens.”

In the past, that didn’t always happen.

On Friday night, it did.

And that, more than anything, is where Napier has grown as a player.

He’s always been able to score. He’s always had the ability to create separation in one-on-one situations. He’s always had the ball on a string, the shiftiness and And-1 mixtape flair that will leave defenders looking silly. Where he’s grown is his ability to channel that talent, to become a leader, a steadying influence instead of an infuriating one.

“He doesn’t get down on himself,” Ollie said. “I told him [his leadership is] a special gift, and for him to really get to that next level, he needs to start giving away that gift. It’s not about the buckets. It’s about the leadership. He didn’t do that earlier in his career, and now he’s doing it.”

VIDEO: Kentucky freshman Malik Monk throws down vicious dunks during scrimmage

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 15:  West Team MVP Malik Monk (L) (Bentonville, AR) in action during the 15th iteration of the Jordan Brand Classic at Barclays Center on April 15, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for Jordan Brand )
(Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for Jordan Brand )
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Kentucky freshman guard Malik Monk is going to be one of the newcomers to keep an eye on this season as the 6-foot-3 Arkansas native is an explosive scorer who packs vicious athleticism.

Monk showed Big Blue Nation some of what they can expect to see during Friday night’s Blue/White Scrimmage as he unleashed a ferocious dunk in some traffic and also had another good dunk in transition. While Monk has great lift off the floor, he also isn’t afraid to cock the ball back and put some authority on his dunks. He’s going to be a ton of fun to watch this season.

Xavier loses Kaiser Gates to a knee procedure

Xavier head coach Chris Mack directs his team against Wake Forest in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Winston-Salem, N.C., Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Xavier announced on Friday that Kaiser Gates underwent a surgical procedure on his left knee and will be out for about a month.

“Kaiser had a scope procedure to remove small particles of cartilage in his left knee,” said Xavier Associate Head Athletic Trainer David Fluker. “We are optimistic that he can be back on the court in four weeks.”

Gates is a 6-foot-8 sophomore that played just 10 minutes per game last season. But with the Musketeers losing a handful of key front court pieces in the offseason, Gates was one of the guys expected to play a bigger role this year. We are currently less than four weeks removed from the start of the season, which means it’s likely that Gates will miss some time.

North Carolina’s Theo Pinson out indefinitely with fractured foot

Theo Pinson
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
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North Carolina wing Theo Pinson fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot and will be out indefinitely.

The injury occurred in a practice this week. There is no timetable for his return.

“I’m so disappointed for Theo,” head coach Roy Williams said. “Number one, he’s ben playing well and he does so many positive things for our team. Theo’s our energy guy, he defends, he’s our best passer, a threat on the offensive boards, he can play four different positions, and he gives our team personality.”

“Hopefully we can get him back before the end of the season.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award watch list announced

DES MOINES, IA - MARCH 19:  Thomas Bryant #31 of the Indiana Hoosiers celebrates defeating Kentucky Wildcats 73 to 67 during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena on March 19, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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The 20 candidates for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award watch list were announced on Friday morning.

The award is given to the best center in college basketball. In 2016, Jakob Poeltl won it.

Here are the 20 players on the watch list:

Moses Kingsley, Arkansas
Eric Mika, BYU
Justin Patton, Creighton
Marques Bolden, Duke
Zena Edosomwan, Harvard
Thomas Bryant, Indiana
Bam Adebayo, Kentucky
Tim Kempton, Lehigh
Omer Yurtseven, NC State
Chris Boucher, Oregon
Isaac Haas, Purdue
Pascal Chukwu, Syracuse
Jarrett Allen, Texas
Tyler Davis, Texas A&M
Thomas Welsh, UCLA
Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina
Luke Kornet, Vanderbilt
Mo Alie-Cox, VCU
Josh Hawkinson, Washington State
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin

Southland Conference Preview: Does Stephen F. Austin sustain success without Underwood, Walkup?

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AP Photo/David J. Phillip
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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Southland Conference.

Things are going to look different in the Southland this season now that Stephen F. Austin has lost so many familiar faces. The three-time defending champion Lumberjacks lost head coach Brad Underwood to Oklahoma State and two-time Southland Player of the Year Thomas Walkup exhausted his eligibility as Stephen F. Austin tries to stay atop the conference with some new faces.

New head coach Kyle Keller is now in charge at Stephen F. Austin after a successful stint as an assistant coach with Texas A&M. Keller likely won’t match Underwood’s insane 53-1 Southland record with the Lumberjacks but he has plenty of talent and winning culture in place. The Lumberjacks have won a NCAA tournament game in two of the last three seasons as they return junior Ty Charles and sophomore T.J. Holyfield. Newcomers could be the key to the season or Stephen F. Austin as Keller brought in some talented transfers and junior college prospects.

Sam Houston State is once again knocking on the door as they return the top five scorers from last season. Senior forward Aurimas Majauskas and senior guard Dakarai Henderson both averaged 14.2 points per game last season as both players were All-Southland second-team selections. The return of talented point guard Paul Baxter, who missed last season with injury, could give the Bearkats six capable starters.

Coming off of a CBI appearance, Houston Baptist returns a lot of upperclass talent as they’re led by senior forward Colter Lasher. If center Josh Ibarra can return from injury and graduate transfer Atif Russell makes an impact from Pepperdine then the Huskies could be one of the Southland’s deeper teams. Texas A&M Corpus-Christi returns Player of the Year candidate Rashawn Thomas as forward as the senior will need help from a lot of new pieces. Seven seniors are gone from last season, but the Islanders are hoping guards Joe Kilgore and Ehab Amin can step up.

McNeese State has to improve its defense and rebounding but the Cowboys return a potent offense. Five of the top six scorers are back including senior guard Jamaya Burr and sophomores Jarren Greenwood and James Harvey and McNeese State should be one of the better perimeter shooting teams in the Southland. A young team who could be one to watch, Abilene Christian returns super sophomore guard Jaylen Franklin to lead the charge. The Wildcats only have one senior and need sophomores like Hayden Howell and Jaren Lewis to step up.

Things should be intriguing at Northwestern State as high-scoring guard Zeek Woodley is back but star senior point guard Jalan West is out once again with a torn ACL. Woodley is good for over 20 points a game but he’ll need more help this season. Senior guard Sabri Thompson was strong during a preseason trip to Canada. Head coach Jay Ladner returns seven of the top nine scorers for Southeastern Louisiana as the Lions should have plenty of scoring. Guard Joshua Filmore logged plenty of minutes last season while Southern Miss transfer Davon Hayes could provide another rotation piece.

Incarnate Word got hit hard by transfers this offseason as Jontell Walker and Derail Green left for other programs. Junior guard Shawn Johnson showed some promise late in the season and should be asked to lead. New Orleans returns three double-figure scorers in guard Christavious Gill, forward Erik Thomas and guard Nate Frye. The Privateers can make a jump if they  improve their perimeter shooting and get five new players involved.

After being banned from the postseason for a low APR, Central Arkansas is hoping for a better season. Junior Jordan Howard can pour in points and Derreck Brooks is a quality second piece. The Bears have to improve defensively after an abysmal 2015-16. Lamar is hoping that head coach Tic Price can get them back on track as leading scorer Nick Garth is back. The Cardinals will rely a lot on new pieces this season as they hit the junior college ranks hard for college-ready players. New coach Richie Riley takes over at Nicholls State as he signed five players this spring. Senior guard Ja’Dante Fry is back along with senior center Liam Thomas, the Southland’s leader in blocks last season.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON SOUTHLAND PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Rashawn Thomas, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

The reigning Southland Defensive Player of the Year was also top five in the league in scoring and rebounding a year ago as the 6-foot-8 senior averaged 16.6 points and a conference-leading 8.1 rebounds per game. Thomas also shot 55 percent from the floor and averaged 2.3 blocks per game as he’s one of the best all-around mid-major players in the country. On a team replacing a lot of experienced players, Thomas could put up huge numbers for the Islanders.


  • Zeek Woodley, Northwestern State: Putting up 22.2 points per game the last two seasons, the 6-foot-2 senior has a serious chance at 2,000 career points.
  • Jaylen Franklin, Abilene Christian: The 6-foot-2 guard is reigning Southland Freshman of the Year after averaging 16.2 points, 3.8 rebounds in his first season.
  • Jordan Howard, Central Arkansas: A bright spot for Central Arkansas, the 5-foot-11 junior put up 20.2 points per game while shooting 42 percent from three-point range.
  • Aurimas Majauskas, Sam Houston State: The 6-foot-7 senior shot 54 percent from the floor while averaging 14.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game last season.



  1. Stephen F. Austin
  2. Sam Houston State
  3. Houston Baptist
  4. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
  5. McNeese State
  6. Abilene Christian
  7. Northwestern State
  8. Southeastern Louisiana
  9. Incarnate Word
  10. New Orleans
  11. Central Arkansas
  12. Lamar
  13. Nicholls State