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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.”

Five-star 2017 guard Lonnie Walker cuts list to five schools

Men's U18 trials head shots and team photo on 6.15.16
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Five-star shooting guard Lonnie Walker is coming off of a very good summer as he trimmed his list to five schools on Thursday night.

The 6-foot-4 native of Reading, Pennsylvania is still considering Arizona, Kentucky, Miami, Syracuse and Villanova, he announced on Twitter.

Regarded as the No. 26 overall prospect in the Class of 2017, Walker played with Team Final in the Nike EYBL this spring and summer as he averaged 16.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. Walker shot 45 percent from the field, 39 percent from three-point range and 72 percent from the free-throw line.

An efficient scorer who is learning to drive with both hands, Walker is very talented and the type of guard who might also be able to handle a bit as well.

VIDEO: Jim Boeheim makes TV appearance to talk Carmelo Anthony

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Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim has drawn attention for some recent comments about former Orange star Carmelo Anthony.

After Anthony captured his record third gold medal with USA Basketball, his former college coach told Mike Waters of the Syracuse Post-Standard that Anthony didn’t have a great chance at winning an NBA title.

“He’s unlikely to win an NBA title,” Boeheim said of Anthony. “He’s never been on a team that even had a remote chance of winning an NBA title.”

Boeheim maintains that he was speaking of Melo’s legacy being about more than an NBA title and that he’s one of the game’s greats thanks to other accomplishments like the Syracuse title and gold medals. On SportsCenter, Boeheim made sure to stress where those comments were coming from, while also making sure his kids would stop being mad at him.

It’s much easier to understand where Boeheim is coming from in this instance and it clears up something that will probably go away now.

Big Ten releases conference schedule

CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 22:  Head coach Tom Izzo of the Michigan State Spartans reacts against the Virginia Cavaliers during the third round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Time Warner Cable Arena on March 22, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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The Big Ten released its 2016-17 conference schedule on Thursday as the conference season begins on Dec. 27 with a four-game set.

Conference play will conclude on March 5th before the 20th annual Big Ten Tournament is played at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C. from March 8-12.

Some notable games include Penn State hosting Michigan State at the Palestra on Jan. 7.

You can view the full Big Ten schedule here.

Arizona’s Talbott Denny injures knee, out for season

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TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) Arizona senior forward Talbott Denny will miss the season after tearing the ACL and medial meniscus in his left knee.

The school said Wednesday that the 6-foot-5 graduate transfer from Lipscomb will have surgery.

Denny, from Tucson’s Salpointe Catholic High School, missed all of last season at Lipscomb because of a shoulder injury.

Roy Williams: ‘There’s no question’ more ACC games equal no Kentucky in non-conference

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 23: Head coach Roy Williams of the North Carolina Tar Heels looks on during the third round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament against the Iowa State Cyclones at the AT&T Center on March 23, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Back in June, when the ACC officially announced that they would be expanding the league schedule to 20 games in 2019, I tried to warn you that it was going to put a dent into the non-conference schedule and the amount of quality, on-campus games that we’ll get prior to January.

Roy Williams essentially confirmed this as fact this week.

The North Carolina head coach hopped on a podcast with ESPN and more or less said that the bigger league schedule is going to lead to an end of some of UNC’s marquee home-and-home series.

“My feeling right now, and it could change by ’19, heck I could be fired by ’19, but my feeling right now is to play our conference schedule, play one exempt event where you have really good teams, and other than that play home games to help out your revenue and help out your budget,” Williams said. “We have the ACC/Big Ten and that’s not going to go away. So it’s 21 games already scheduled.”

When asked specifically if this would put an end to UNC’s series with Kentucky, Williams said, “Oh yeah, there’s no question. Why would I need to do that?”

There’s two reasons this makes sense. On the one hand, North Carolina needs to fill their home arena a certain number of times to help with the bottom line of the athletic department. They make enough off of ticket sales, merchandise sales, parking fees and food and beverage that they can afford to pay out more than $50,000 to bring a smaller opponent into their arena. More than that, playing a series of weaklings early in the year allows players to gain confidence, it allows Williams to figure out what his rotation will be and who can handle playing at this level, and it gives newcomers a chance to assimilate into his team against players that just aren’t that good.

And when a larger ACC schedule severely limits the number of non-conference games that UNC will be able to play, what’s going to get cut are the contracts that require the Tar Heels to play on the road when they don’t have to.

So buh-bye, Kentucky, it is.