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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.”

Southern Conference to keep championships in North Carolina

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) The Southern Conference will keep four league championships in North Carolina despite the NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference withdrawing championships because of the state law restricting the rights of LGBT people.

The league said it will honor commitments for these tournaments: men’s soccer in Greensboro, men’s and women’s basketball in Asheville and men’s golf in Pinehurst.

“We don’t want to punish the local host communities by pulling the championships out of the state this year,” Commissioner John Iamarino said Friday. “That point did resonate with presidents and chancellors.”

The league said in a statement its presidents and chancellors “reaffirmed their resolute opposition to legislation that discriminates against any individual.”

Iamarino said his conference was prepared for criticism in light of the NCAA and ACC decisions over the North Carolina’s law, which excludes gender identity and sexual orientation from local and statewide antidiscrimination protections. It also requires transgender people to use restrooms at schools and government buildings corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates.

HB2 was signed into law this year by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who has defended it as a commonsense safety and security measure.

The Southern Conference is headquartered in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Its 10 schools – Citadel, Chattanooga, East Tennessee, Furman, Mercer, UNC Greensboro, Samford, VMI, Western Carolina and Wofford – are in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

The decision on the championships came after two conference calls among league leaders.

“While not unanimous, we found enough common ground to get to this point,” Iamarino said.

He said the league was influenced by the North Carolina host communities, all urging the conference to hold its events as planned. In Asheville, Iamarino said he met with about 30 people, including some from the LGBT community, who promised to fight the HB2 law but wanted the basketball tournaments to remain.

Iamarino said the venues involved are privately controlled and the league is confident of there will be an inclusive atmosphere at the events. The men’s golf event will be held at Pinehurst Country Club and the basketball at a neutral site in Asheville.

The soccer will be played on the Greensboro campus.

Earlier this month, the NCAA removed seven championships from North Carolina, including first- and second-round games of the men’s basketball tournament scheduled for Greensboro. The ACC soon followed suit, pulling 10 of its championships from the state, including the football title game that was scheduled for Charlotte.

The ACC on Thursday relocated the football game to Orlando, Florida.

Iamarino said Southern Conference presidents and chancellors will meet in May to see if more action is necessary. He said there’s concern similar laws could extend beyond North Carolina.

“This could be a long-term issue,” he said.

Iamarino said he’s also concerned the schools against keeping the championships in North Carolina might take their own actions, perhaps boycotting the league events played there.

“It’s a real concern,” he said. “We’ll continue to communicate and prepare for everything.”

Report: Virginia Tech forward Blackshear still recovering from offseason foot surgery

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 10: Kerry Blackshear Jr. #24 of the Virginia Tech Hokies and Kamari Murphy #21 of the Miami Hurricanes go for a rebound in the second half during the quarterfinals of the 2016 ACC Basketball Tournament Verizon Center on March 10, 2016 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Virginia Tech sophomore forward Kerry Blackshear will miss the start of training camp as he continues to recover from offseason foot surgery, according to a report from Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The 6-foot-10 Blackshear played in all 35 games for the Hokies last season as he battled through the foot injury to average 6.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. According to Barber’s report, Blackshear had surgery on his right foot five days after the 2015-16 season ended, but he’s still wearing a walking boot to help recover. There has been no timetable given for Blackshear’s return.

Blackshear will be a key piece for a Virginia Tech team that is a bit thin up front this season. Freshman Khadim Sy can provide some minutes up front, but he’s inexperienced and center Nick Fullard has to sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules. Getting a healthy Blackshear will be a key storyline for a Virginia Tech team that many will have in the preseason top 25.

Indiana roster dealing with handful of injuries as practice begins

BLOOMINGTON, IN - NOVEMBER 20:  A general view of  the SMU Mustangs game against the Indiana Hoosiers at Assembly Hall on November 20, 2014 in Bloomington, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Indiana has been hit with the injury buy a bit during the start of practice and it doesn’t only involved the recent announcement of knee surgery for senior Collin Hartman.

According to a report from the Indiana Daily Student the Hoosiers are also dealing with a knee injury for junior college transfer forward Freddie McSwain and sophomore Juwan Morgan hasn’t been cleared for practice yet after offseason shoulder surgery.

The 6-foot-6 McSwain had a knee injury flare up when he came to Indiana and had surgery to clean it up. Crean told the Indiana Daily Student that McSwain was still a few weeks from returning.

That means Indiana has to find early practice minutes to replace Hartman, Morgan and McSwain up front which gives more reps to players like O.G. Anunoby and freshman big man De’Ron Davis.

Since Anunoby and Davis both dealt with some offseason injuries and guard Robert Johnson was recently cleared to return, Hoosiers head coach Tom Crean is remaining cautious during the early part of practice this season. Crean also has to monitor the return of starting guard James Blackmon Jr. after he missed most of last season with a torn ACL.

“We would have already practiced this morning and they would be ready to go tonight, if this were a year ago,” Crean said in the report. “We have to tailor make this thing. We can’t be in too much of a rush with these guys.”

Obviously, the frontcourt injuries are something to keep an eye on for Indiana during the early part of the season. None of the three injuries seem severe, but Hartman’s timetable to return hasn’t been listed and McSwain and Morgan are missing valuable early time in practice.

It’ll be interesting to see if this helps younger players like Anunoby and Davis get more acquainted with the first team early on since both could have an impact this season.

Texas lands four-star Class of 2017 guard Jase Febres

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Texas and head coach Shaka Smart continue to recruit at a high level, especially in the state of Texas, as the Longhorns landed a commitment from Class of 2017 four-star guard Jase Febres on Friday night.

The 6-foot-5 Febres is considered the No. 63 overall prospect in the Rivals national Class of 2017 rankings as he burst on the national radar this summer with some strong shooting performances. Febres shot over 40 percent from three-point range during the month of July after battling through injury during the spring. Besides owning good size for a wing shooter, Febres also takes pride in defending and he can rebound a bit from the wing as well.

Febres is going to have to improve his overall offensive package if a defense plays him off the three-point line, but he has upside as a three-and-D guy with the Longhorns.

The Class of 2017 is starting to round into shape for Texas as Febres joins four-star power forward Jericho Sims and four-star forward Royce Hamm. Since taking over the Texas job, Smart has done a great job of keeping local talent home as he now has five four- and five-star prospects from the state in the last two classes.

 

VIDEO: Kentucky fans get married in the ticket line for Big Blue Madness

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Kentucky fans have unique ways of making their annual Big Blue Madness event the most chaotic tip-off event of the season. While Big Blue Nation is waiting in line for tickets to this year’s festivities in Tent City, one couple decided to go the extra mile.

After securing the first spot in line for tickets, Ray Branham and Vicki Harvey opted to get married. According to a post from Drew Franklin of Kentucky Sports Radio, the couple had already been talking about tying the knot, but decided to make the move once they had the top spot in line. As you can see by the wedding video, it was a very Kentucky-themed ceremony as the duo got married in front of friends and other Kentucky fans.

I can’t say I’m surprised two Kentucky fans decided to get married in line for something like Big Blue Madness and this (unplanned) wedding gives this year’s event something unique that we will always remember.