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Shabazz Napier had to learn how to lead. He did, and UConn has their fourth title

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ARLINGTON, Texas — UConn won the 2014 national title on Monday night, knocking off Kentucky and their half a dozen lottery picks 60-54 behind 22 points from Shabazz Napier, an incredible feat when you consider where this program was just two years ago.

Their Hall of Fame head coach, Jim Calhoun, was retiring a year after he got caught up in a recruiting scandal involving Nate Miles and a year before the Huskies were to be banned from the postseason for poor APR scores that stemmed from Calhoun’s tenure. They were lost in the shuffle of conference realignment, getting blacklisted from the ACC and relegated to the American, and they had just watched four of their best players bolt from the program after going from the preseason No. 1 team in the country in 2011-2012 to an opening round exit in the 2012 tournament.

The UConn program was left for dead.

Too bad no one told Napier.

He took control of this team — of this program, really — and carried them on the most unlikely of national title runs. “He’s taken ownership of his team,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said. “I call him my unpaid coach, and that’s for a reason, because he has a coaching mentality. Me and him think the same. I couldn’t think of another point guard that I really give the keys to and let drive the bus, because he does it wonderfully.”

And to think, just two years ago he couldn’t get anyone to pay attention to him.

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“I try my best to be a leader, even though guys don’t give me a chance to be that person.”

That’s what Napier told reporters back in 2012 after the Huskies had dropped back-to-back January games to Seton Hall and Rutgers. “The guys don’t listen to me,” he said. “It sucks.”

That same season, UConn lost to Iowa State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. In the locker room after the game, as Napier was talking to reporters, he saw his teammates laughing and smiling, turning and punching his locker as hard as he could. “See, this is the [stuff] I’m talking about.”

What a difference two years makes.

According to Jim Calhoun, this team “would follow him across the desert for a drink of water.” Rodney Purvis told NBCSports.com that “if Shabazz said, ‘Come on guys, let’s go jump off a cliff,’ the guys would probably follow him there.”

What changed?

“He didn’t know what to say then,” Calhoun said. “He was thinking the right things and saying the wrong things, because he was trying to be Kemba [Walker]. When he found out who Shabazz was, good things happened for him. Some of it’s maturity, some of it’s understanding how to talk to them.”

“He was handed the reins of a team that didn’t have any seniors and unexpectedly won a national championship. That’s a really hard thing to be thrown in front of,” Tyler Olander said. Olander is one of three seniors on this UConn team that played on the 2011 and 2014 title winning teams. “It’s not easy to take that over and become this type of player. [Kemba] was a National Player of the Year. He led a team to a national championship. That’s not something that’s done every day.”

Napier has a dominant personality, particularly on the basketball court. He wants to be in control. He wants to be the guy that has the ball in his hands. He wants to be the coach on the floor. You can see it when he plays. He’s directing his teammates where to go, he’s calling out sets, he’s calling out for ball-screens. When he was a sophomore, the guys on the floor didn’t want to hear that. They didn’t want to be told what to do.

Now? His teammates listened.

“When you go through a lot it teaches you how to be a man,” Napier said. “Sometimes you go through the ups and sometimes you go through the downs. You’ve just got to learn from it.”

Part of the reason he’s become a commanding presence in this program is because the success that he’s had on the court speaks for itself. He’s not some sophomore stepping on toes as he tries to make a name for himself. He’s the guy that stayed through the APR sanctions, that carried a team without a postseason to play for despite making a decision to stay at UConn that could have hurt his career in the long run. He’s paid his dues. He’s earned the right to yell at a teammate when they make a mistake. His track record speaks for itself.

But it’s more than that. He looks out for the younger guys off the floor. He sets an example with everything he does, from the way he prepares for a game to the way that he prepares for a test.

“He’s a professional with everything he does,” Olander said. “He eats well, he gets the proper amount of sleep, he takes care of his body, he does all the right things on and off the court, attends class, does school work. It’s all the little things. He sets an example with everything he does.”

“He was like my best friend,” Purvis said. “I just hung around him all the time, tried to pick his brain and pick up on the things he does. He’s a great player, but he’s more a great person. He’s an all-american in everything he does.”

“He’s one of those guys who’d rather be respected than liked. He doesn’t care if you like him, but you’re going to respect him.” They did.

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“I wanna get everybody’s attention right quick,” Napier said to the UConn fans that made up a fraction of the NCAA title-game record crowd of 79,238 as he was being interviewed by Jim Nantz after the UConn’s win. “Ladies and Gentlemen, take a look at the Hungry Huskies.”

“This is what happened when you banned us.”

That was planned.

Napier admitted as much afterwards. He laid in his bed in his hotel room in Dallas on Sunday night thinking about what he was going to tell Jim Nantz 24 hours later. And what he settled on had nothing to do with what UConn did in the tournament and nothing to do with the game that he had just played. In his One Shining Moment, with all of America’s sports fans watching him, Napier took a shot at the NCAA for a punishment that was handed down 18 months ago. He took up for his guys for something that rest of the country had forgotten about, for something that very few people even care about anymore.

That resonates within a locker room.

But what’s more telling is that Napier spent the night figuring out exactly what he was going to say to Jim Nantz because, as he put it, “I knew we were going to win.”

It wasn’t the first time that he had made that promise.

“We’re going to be the team that’s holding up that trophy,” Napier told his teammates after the Huskies lost a game at home to Louisville on national television as their head coach was ejected. “I promise you that,” he said.

“And it’s so surreal that it actually happened,” he told reporters on Monday. “We were on the podium, and I told everybody, ‘Look at me, what did I tell y’all when we lost against Louisville at home?'”

“I was like, ‘We’re the best team in the country. It’s not the Shabazz show. I don’t need to get recognized.’ They understand that It’s the University of Connecticut Huskies. We went out there and proved it.”

No. 3 Gonzaga improves to 20-0 with win over Portland

SPOKANE, WA - DECEMBER 07:  Nigel Williams-Goss #5 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs drives against the Washington Huskies in the first half at McCarthey Athletic Center on December 7, 2016 in Spokane, Washington.  Gonzaga defeated Washington 98-71.  (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)
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PORTLAND, Ore. — Zach Collins had 13 points and No. 3 Gonzaga remained the nation’s only undefeated Division I team with an 83-64 victory over Portland in a game Monday night that was rescheduled because of a winter storm earlier this month.

The Bulldogs have won 20 straight games, their longest streak since winning that many in the 2005-06 and 2003-04 seasons. Gonzaga is now 8-0 in West Coast Conference play.

Silas Melson and Jordan Mathews each added 12 points for the Zags, who led by as many as 33 points and had four players in double-digits.

Rashad Jackson and D’Marques Tyson had 15 points apiece for Portland, which won its first two games in conference but has lost six straight since then. The Pilots (9-11, 2-6 WCC) are playing their first season under former NBA player and coach Terry Porter.

The game was originally scheduled for Jan. 7, but a winter storm in Portland forced it to be postponed. Portland opened up extra seats and Gonzaga’s fans outnumbered the home team’s crowd.

The two teams had met just two days ago in Spokane, with Gonzaga leading from the start to win 73-52. But Portland, playing without top scorer Alec Wintering, out-rebounded the Zags 41-33 and held them to 45 percent shooting.

The Zags fared better on Monday, out-rebounding Portland 41-36 and shooting 42 percent.

Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who left the game against Portland because of a left hip injury with about five minutes left, was questionable against Portland but started.

But freshman forward Killian Tillie appeared to injure his right leg under Portland’s basket with 9:38 to go in the game, and teammates helped him from the floor. The 6-foot-10 Tillie, who is from France, is averaging 4.8 points this season.

Wintering, a senior, was hurt in last Thursday’s game against San Francisco and the Pilots announced this weekend that his college career was over because of a torn left ACL.

Wintering averaged 19.5 points and 5.6 assists a game this season. He was on Portland’s bench in street clothes, but during warmups before the game and at the break he was on the court, offering his teammates advice and encouragement.

Gonzaga jumped out to a 9-0 run but the Pilots closed within 9-8 following Philipp Hartwich’s dunk. Portland was competitive, answering Melson’s 3-pointer for Gonzaga with Jackson’s 3 that got the Pilots within 22-19.

But the Bulldogs responded with an 8-0 run to go up 30-19 and went into halftime with on a 16-4 run for a 38-23 lead. Melson and Jonathan Williams led Gonzaga at the break with eight points apiece. Jackson’s 13 first-half points for Portland were a new career high for a game.

Gonzaga extended the lead to 50-26 on Przemek Karnowski’s layup with just under 16 minutes to go, the Bulldogs were on the way to their 20th straight win.

THE BIG PICTURE:

Gonzaga: The Zags have won eight straight against Portland. … The Bulldogs’ longest winning streak was 22 games, set in the

Portland: Portland Trail Blazers President Neil Olshey was at the game. … The game, originally scheduled to be played over winter break, was sold out. So despite school being back in session, the usual student section wasn’t as large for the televised game.

POLL IMPLICATIONS: Gonzaga rose a spot from No. 4 and only trails No. 1 Villanova (19-1) and No. 2 Kansas (18-1) in the AP rankings released earlier in the day. The Bulldogs were also ranked No. 3 in the Feb. 23, 2015 poll.

VIDEO: Andrew Jones nails deep three to give Texas win over Oklahoma

AUSTIN, TX - DECEMBER 27: James Banks #4 and Andrew Jones #1 of the Texas Longhorns react during the game between the Texas Longhorns and the Kent State Golden Flashesat the Frank Erwin Center on December 27, 2016 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)
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Texas freshman Andrew Jones nailed one of the most heroic game-winners of conference play with a dagger against Oklahoma on Monday night.

The Longhorns put together an 84-83 win over the Sooners as Jones took the final possession off of a missed free throw to dribble across the floor and fire an NBA-range bomb over a defender.

This win isn’t going to save a struggling Texas season, but it’s a nice win and a confidence-boosting shot for a McDonald’s All-American who has the potential to be a big-time player with some more seasoning. Jones finished with 16 points in the win as the Longhorns are now 8-12 and 2-6 in the Big 12.

(H/t: Mike Leslie)

VIDEO: Dennis Smith Jr. caps N.C. State win with thunder dunk

DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 23:  Dennis Smith Jr. #4 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack drives in for a dunk as time expires during their win against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 23, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. North Carolina State won 84-82.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Dennis Smith Jr. showed why he is a potential top three pick in this year’s draft and why he was the reason many thought that the Wolfpack could be an Elite 8 team coming into the season on Monday, popping off for 32 points and six assists as N.C. State won at No. 17 Duke, 84-82.

He capped off the performance with the perfect exclamation point, a dunk contest-worthy throwdown:

Let’s get another angle of that dunk, shall we?:

Three Takeaways from N.C. State’s win over No. 17 Duke

DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 23:  Head coach Mark Gottfried talks to Dennis Smith Jr. #4 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack during their win against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 23, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. North Carolina State won 84-82.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Freshman Dennis Smith Jr. had a monster performance as he scored 32 points and had six assists to lead the Wolfpack past No. 17 Duke for an ACC road win.

Here are three takeaways for an important win for N.C. State.

1. This is the Dennis Smith Jr. (and N.C. State) that we envisioned 

Before this season N.C. State received a lot of hype with some pundits — including NBCSports.com — because people knew that freshman Dennis Smith Jr. was a lottery pick talent and there were other pieces around him that could be productive. Smith has mostly lived up to his top-five hype this season but Monday night’s game saw the North Carolina native go to another level.

Smith comes from a family of N.C. State fans. It is part of the reason he selected the Wolfpack even though they aren’t a one-and-done factory like some other schools. The Wolfpack hadn’t won in Cameron Indoor Stadium since 1995 and this year’s N.C. State had lost four of five ACC games entering Monday.

And Smith went completely bonkers. He finished with 32 points and six assists as he was 4-for-6 from three-point range.

At the end of the first half when it looked like Duke might take a double-digit lead into the break, Smith converted a three-point play and followed it up with a tough, contested three to make it a six-point game. The second half saw more of the same from Smith as he nailed pull-up threes, got to the rim and finished through traffic. It was the type of mesmerizing performance that gets casual basketball fans excited about a player before March Madness begins.

Smith wasn’t the only good player for N.C. State on Monday. Freshman big man Ted Kapita gave crucial minutes inside as he registered his first career double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Abdul Malik-Abu was a great secondary option for Smith as he contributed 19 points and nine rebounds. Maverick Rowan (nine points) hit a key late three and some important free throws.

When this team has all of its pieces going you can see why so many people believed N.C. State was capable of the Sweet 16. It feels like this team could be in for a run and the road game at Louisville on Sunday is another major test.

2. Duke is still figuring out its ideal rotation (while getting some answers)

Interim coach Jeff Capel went to some interesting lineup choices on Monday night. Capel started the game by using the lineup that jumpstarted Duke’s second half against Miami. That meant increased minutes for freshman center Marques Bolden as he was paired with Jayson Tatum (16 points) and Frank Jackson.

Seniors Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson were the interchangeable parts who played the most minutes in the first half for the Blue Devils and the second unit included Grayson Allen (13 points), Luke Kennard (20 points) and Harry Giles.

The Blue Devils still have some disjointed sets and scorers are still struggling to play with Tatum at times but there were some promising signs. Giles (eight points, seven rebounds) continues to improve his natural timing and he knocked down a face-up jumper from 17 feet with ease that could help keep defenders honest on him.

There was some good but there was also some bad. Bolden regressed to being a non-factor once again and Allen struggled to find a consistent scoring touch with a 4-for-13 performance.

We still have yet to see the (mostly) full strength Blue Devils that make us believe they are a national title contender. It’ll be interesting to see which lineup ultimately plays the best for Duke but they’re struggling to figure out a consistent rotation.

3. Can N.C. State sustain this kind of effort on a nightly basis?

Monday night was N.C. State’s first road win of the season. So for as big as this win is, the Wolfpack still have a long way to go to becoming a consistent factor in a ridiculously deep ACC. Smith is going to get tested quite a bit by Louisville’s length and athleticism on Sunday and playing in front of that Cardinal crowd is one of the hardest things to do in college basketball.

It doesn’t get any easier for N.C. State and they can’t have a major letdown after the high of a road win like this. That losing stretch of four out of five games included some really bad losses. Boston College, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest are the kind of losses that tournament teams can’t sustain on a regular basis so the Wolfpack have to take care of  business against teams like that for the rest of the season.

Success on the road will also help N.C. State’s tournament cause. This Duke win is nice but now the Wolfpack get two more cracks at top-15 teams away from home with Louisville and Florida State in the next two weeks. If N.C. State can somehow split those road games and stay strong at home they’ll be in good shape the rest of the way.

PHOTO: Nevada wearing pink jerseys to honor Coaches vs. Cancer this week

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Nevada announced that they’ll be wearing special pink uniforms for the next two games to promote cancer awareness.

The Wolf Pack will wear the jerseys on Wednesday (Jan. 25) on the road against Boise State and at home on Saturday (Jan. 28) against New Mexico.

“We are extremely excited and honored to release our new Pink “Cancer-Awareness” Jerseys. It was apparent very early in our time here, that many members of our Nevada Wolf Pack Basketball Program and in our Pack community have been affected or are currently being affected by cancer,” Nevada head coach Eric Musselman said in the release. “We could not be more proud to help support the cause and unite to fight this horrible and devastating disease.”