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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.”

Minnesota center to miss a month

ST. LOUIS, MO - MARCH 7: Reggie Lynch #22 of the Illinois State Redbirds and Fred VanVleet #23 of the Wichita State Shockers fight for control of a loose ball during the MVC Basketball Tournament Semifinals at the Scottrade Center on March 7, 2015 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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Minnesota’s projected starting center is sidelined, but is expected to be ready for the season opener.

Reggie Lynch, the Illinois State transfer, had surgery on his left knee, the program announced on Friday night. According to Marcus R. Fuller of the Star-Tribune, the Golden Gophers are anticipating that Lynch is available for the season opener on Nov. 11 against Louisiana-Lafayette.

The 6-foot-10 Lynch has been in the news this offseason prior to his impending debut with Minnesota. In May, he was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault. On August 1, the Hennepin County attorney’s office was announced he would not face charges, citing insufficient evidence.

Lynch spent two seasons at Illinois State, averaging 9.5 points and 5.4 rebounds per game for the Redbirds as a sophomore. He sat out the 2015-16 season due to NCAA transfer rules. Minnesota is coming off a second-to-last place finish in the Big Ten with an 8-23 (2-16 Big Ten) record.

Women’s hoops coaches boycotting recruiting events

DENVER, CO - MARCH 31:  Head coach Muffet McGraw of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish directs her team during practice prior to the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament Final Four at Pepsi Center on March 31, 2012 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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For some high-major women’s basketball programs, the final evaluation period of 2016 is being used as a vacation from the recruiting trail.

According to a report from Lindsay Schnell of Sports Illustrated, are not attending events during this weekend’s recruiting period for a host of reasons.

First, many are fed up with the price of tournament packets, booklets of rosters that college coaches receive upon paying their entry fee. Packets are supposed to be chock-full of contact information for the prospects, but sometimes aren’t accurate or up-to-date. (This has become a well-documented issue on the men’s side of college hoops. CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish wrote on it this summer.) Furthermore, there are so many events now that college coaches are often forced to pay obscene amounts of money to watch just one player at a single event, and play recruiting hopscotch around the country, criss-crossing the nation to see so many events and spend thousands of dollars. One Power Five coach said her staff crunched the numbers, and found that in just two years, they’ve spent more than $4,000 more than they did in 2014 on packets alone. Another coach told a story of sending an assistant across the country for one day, to one event, to watch one team. When the assistant arrived, the team had left early for its next event. No refund was available for the college that had paid what turned out to be a useless entry fee. The head coach called it “exasperating.”

Jeff Borzello of ESPN, who spoke to Notre Dame head coach and eventual Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw for his report, estimated that the cost for one of the coaches packets — the ones that include player contact information, rosters, etc. — can cost each school an average of $600 per event.

This era of grassroots basketball has taken off in recent years with Nike, Under Armour and adidas all creating their own sponsored leagues. All three run exceptional events from the staff to the facilities, all the way to the three, free meals a day for coaches. Organizers of these events will argue that there’s a cost to running such high-end events. These packets, some of which are so in-depth they include players’ GPAs, help fund these tournaments (events, paying a staff, etc.).

Coaches, mostly mid to low-major coaches, will argue that these packets aren’t worth the cost, considering that every coach (head and assistant) must purchase them in order to gain entrance. And you will find packets where the information inside is either inaccurate, or missing or both. For elite programs, this isn’t an issue. You show up, you’re seen, you leave, you go to the next event, repeat. For mid to low-major coaches, this really puts a dent in their budget, especially when they have to travel to multiple events (buying packets at each one) because you have to land that “steal,” you have to find that player who is overlooked.

This protest, or boycott (or whatever you want to call it) will hurt those these events are intended to help the most: the players. If coaches continue to avoid these tournaments, that late-bloomer may miss out on a scholarship, or that player with mid-major offers won’t get the chance to play in front of high-major coaches.

According to Schnell, there is a proposal, voted on in April, to eliminate a live recruiting period in April and September. But many coaches in women’s basketball have made it clear this weekend how they feel about the issue.

USC lands commitment from three-star center

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USC added to its 2017 recruiting class with a commitment from a 7-foot big man.

Andy Enfield and the Trojans beat out Florida, Vanderbilt and Tennessee for the services of Calvary Christian Academy (Florida) center Victor Uyaelunmo. He announced his college decision on Friday afternoon.

“It was the best fit for me academically and athletically,” Uyaelunmo said according to David Furones of the Sun Sentinel. “The basketball coaches really wanted me to come, and I thought it was the best place for me.

“They told me how they were going to use me, and they have a couple of guys leaving this year, so I just fit in right.”

Uyaelunmo is regarded as a three-star prospect by Rivals, however, ESPN rates him a four-star recruit. He joins a two-man class which includes four-star forward Jordan Usher.

The departure of Nikola Jovanovic, the Trojans’ leading rebounder during the 2015-16, was a surprising one, and one that left USC with a hole in the middle. While Uyaelunmo still has one more year before arriving on the Los Angeles campus, the Trojans have a promising piece in the paint for the future; a long, athletic big man who has the potential, in time, to become one of the nation’s top shot blockers.

Uyaelunmo played for Nike South Beach in the EYBL this spring and summer. In 12 appearances, he averaged 5.0 points. 5.9 rebounds and 1.0 block in 17.6 minutes per game.

VIDEO: Rupp Arena’s new video board arrives

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Rupp Arena is getting a makeover. Take a peak as the new video board arrives and is put together:

Five-star freshman ruled ineligible to play for Villanova this season

Jay Wright
(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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Omari Spellman will not be eligible to play for Villanova this season, the school announced on Friday morning.

“We are extremely disappointed for Omari,” stated Villanova head coach Jay Wright. “While we don’t agree with the NCAA’s decision, we are members of the association and respect it. We understand why the NCAA felt it had to rule this way.”

“We will make a positive out of this for Omari. He will concentrate on his academics and individual development this season. In the long run Omari will be a better student and player for this experience.”

Spellman is a top 20 recruit that played for St. Thomas More this past season. At 6-foot-9, 260 pounds, Spellman was going to be counted on to play a major role in replacing Daniel Ochefu, the 6-foot-11 center that graduated this past spring. Without Spellman, Villanova will have to rely on inconsistent senior Darryl Reynolds to man their front line.

It is worth noting, however, that Reynolds did average 9.0 points and 10.6 boards in three games Ochefu missed last year. That was the first time in his career that he was given consistent minutes.

Spellman will be allowed to continue to practice with Villanova as he takes an academic redshirt.