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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.”

Nova leads Inaugural Never Forget Tribute Classic field

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) NCAA champion Villanova will play Notre Dame and Pittsburgh faces Penn State in the inaugural Never Forget Tribute Classic at Prudential Center on Dec. 10.

The matchups were announced Wednesday. The event will partner with the Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund, which helps support the education of children of the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The Villanova-Notre Dame game will be part of a doubleheader on CBS with the Army-Navy football game.

Looking Forward: Just how good will Duke be, and when will the 40-0 chatter start?

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As we take a look at ahead at the 2016-17 season, we’re also going to take a deeper dive into what we think will end up being some of the biggest storylines next season.

Today, we’re talking Duke and the potential for a 40-0 season.

There’s a strong argument to make that, in the years since Duke and head coach Mike Krzyzewski fully embraced the one-and-done era, his 2016-17 roster will be the strongest that he has coached.

Stronger, I’d argue, than the 2015 team that produced the three first round picks, including Jahlil Okafor, the No. 3 pick, and Justise Winslow, who went 10th. The kicker? Neither of those two were the stars of the 2015 Final Four. That title belongs to Tyus Jones, who was selected 25th in 2015, and Grayson Allen, a probable first-round pick who returns to school this season as a reigning second-team all-american.

Think about this for a second.

Allen was one of the ten-best players in college basketball last season. He’s a guy who could have snuck into the first round had he opted to enter his name into the NBA Draft, but is coming back to school for his junior year after averaging 21.5 points and 3.5 assists as a sophomore.

And there’s a very real chance that he could end up being the fourth option offensively for the Blue Devils next season. That’s what happens when a program brings in the likes of Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Frank Jackson, to say nothing of the potential that they also land Marques Bolden*. Those are two of the top three, three of the top ten and, if they land Bolden, four of the top 16 players in a class many believe to be as strong and as deep as any we’ve seen in the recruiting rankings era.

*(Bolden has yet to announce where he will be playing his college ball. His list is down to Duke and Kentucky, but there is no timetable yet for when a decision is going to get made.)

Throw in the return of Luke Kennard, Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones, and what you have is a roster that is talented, deep and balanced, enough so that Duke will likely end up being the consensus No. 1 team in the country come November despite the fact that the likes of Kansas, Kentucky, Villanova and Oregon are going to be very, very good as well.

If it were Kentucky fielding a roster like this, the 40-0 chatter would’ve started before the Wildcats were bounced in the second round of the NCAA tournament. When will that discussion pop up, and is there really a chance that this group can pull it off?

Well, the answer to both of those questions is slightly more complicated than simply comparing old Kentucky rosters to what this Duke roster is projected to be.

Duke’s Grayson Allen, center, handles the ball as Long Beach State’s Nick Faust, left, and Long Beach State’s Noah Blackwell (3) defend during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Durham, N.C. Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015. Duke won 103-81. (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)
Grayson Allen (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)

For starters, the ACC is a much tougher conference than the SEC. Even with the unbalanced schedules, it’s almost impossible for Kentucky to play as tough of a conference slate as Duke will play on an annual basis. The ACC is coming off of a year where six teams reached the Sweet 16 and next season, the league may be even better; the NBCSports.com Preseason Top 25 features four ACC teams in the top ten, five in the top 15 and seven in the top 25. That doesn’t include Miami, Pitt or N.C. State, who adds one of the best point guards in the country in Dennis Smith Jr.

     RELATED: What does the ACC have in store for the 2016-17 season?

It also ignores just how difficult it is for anyone to make it through league play unscathed. The last time any team posted an undefeated ACC regular season was back in 1999, when a Duke team led by Trajan Langdon and Elton Brand — a team many consider to be among the best college basketball teams of all-time — finished league play 18-0 and entered the NCAA tournament with just a single loss on their record. In fact, the last time that an ACC team finished league play with just one loss was Maryland’s title-winning team in 2002.

That’s not all.

All of that happened at a time when Louisville, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Miami and Pitt were playing in the Big East or Conference USA and when Virginia was an ACC cellar-dweller, not a perennial top ten program.

And Kentucky?

Well, they’ve run through their SEC schedule with an undefeated record twice in the last five years, not to mention that Florida went 18-0 in SEC play back in 2014. It’s not all that surprising when you think about it like this: the team that finished 9th in the ACC this season reached the Final Four, while two of the three teams that tied for third in the SEC were left out of the NCAA tournament.

     RELATED: The 2016-17 Preseason Top 25

The other thing that you have to consider here is that this Duke team doesn’t exactly have a flawless roster construction.

The biggest concern to me is the point guard spot. Jackson is a terrific player. He’s going to have a major impact at the college level, he could end up being a one-and-done guy and he’ll likely have more than a few highlight plays throughout the season. But he’s also a prototype of the new breed of point guard: An athletic scorer that gets put into a lead guard role because he can handle the ball and no one at the lower levels of basketball can stop him. Tyus Jones, he is not, and that’s where the loss of Derryck Thornton has the potential to hurt this Duke team. Jackson also happens to be the only point guard currently on the roster, so instead of allowing Thornton to play 15-20 minutes on the ball, Jackson is going to have to embrace being a full-time point guard on a team with four or five guys that can take over a game.

How he embraces that role will be particularly relevant, because the other issue with Duke’s roster is that their top four perimeter players — Jackson, Tatum, Allen and Kennard — are all scorers at heart. They’re at their best with the ball in their hands, making a play for themselves. They’re not known for being the kind of players that make their teammates better. That doesn’t mean they can’t — Allen did, after all, average 3.5 assists — it just means that their best skill is scoring the ball.

East forward Jayson Tatum, from Chaminade in St. Louis dunks against the West team during the McDonald's All-American boys basketball game, Wednesday, March 30, 2016, in Chicago. The West won 114-107. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
Jayson Tatum (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

The biggest concern here may be with Tatum. He’s got the tools to be a tremendous player — he’s a smooth, 6-foot-8 small forward with an advanced handle, a soft touch and sneaky athleticism — but he’s also a guy whose biggest strength is his mid-range pull-up game. Does he have the strength and explosiveness to get to and finish at the rim? Will he get more comfortable shooting college threes? How will be operate in a system where the number of times that he’ll be allowed to go one-on-one is limited?

Last season, Coach K’s offense was built around putting Allen, Brandon Ingram and Kennard into isolations because no one could stop those guys. Funneling the ball to two or three players worked when the other two spots on the floor were taken Marshall Plumlee and Matt Jones. It was like watching the Oklahoma City Thunder play. They don’t need a “pure” point guard when they have two players that are unstoppable.

But this season?

When Duke’s loaded with first round-caliber talent?

It will be interesting to see how Coach K molds all of those pieces together, but fit is not the only concern for this group.

     RELATED: Eight programs on the rise | And seven on the decline

Giles shredded his knee prior to his sophomore year in high school — torn ACL, torn MCL, torn meniscus — and while he was seemingly back to full health by his junior season, he tore the ACL in his other knee at the start of his senior year. He had two surgically repaired knees before he even enrolled in a summer school class at Duke. How healthy will he be, and how long will it take for him to return to the player that was at one point considered the consensus top prospect in the class?

And if Giles isn’t healthy or Duke opts to put a cap on the minutes that he plays, and if they don’t land Bolden, will there be a post presence to take the pressure off of their perimeter attack?

So no, this Duke team isn’t going to be perfect.

But then again, who is?

Every high schooler in the country has to make an adjustment in college, when they’re playing with and against a higher level of competition. And every coach in the country will tell you they’d rather find a way to get talented players to embrace their role than try to coach up kids that aren’t good enough.

Duke is going to be the best team on the floor every time they step on the court this season. They’re not always going to be the favorite — road games in league play can do funky things to betting lines — but they are always going to have the most talent.

Will that lead to an undefeated season?

I seriously doubt it. But hey, if Leicester City can with the Premier League, anything can happen.

Just, please, don’t bet your mortgage on it happening.

Duke, Cincinnati lead Hall of Fame Tip-Off

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski gestures during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Florida State in Durham, N.C., Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)
(AP Photo/Ben McKeown)
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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) Duke and Cincinnati, 2016 NCAA Tournament teams, highlight the eight-team field for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament.

The participants for the Nov. 19-20 event were announced Wednesday.

Also in the field are Rhode Island, Penn State, Grand Canyon, Albany, Marist and Brown.

The teams, split into two four-team brackets, will play two doubleheaders at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.

Duke, Cincinnati, Penn State and Rhode Island will meet in the Naismith Bracket, while the others will play in the Springfield Bracket.

The teams will play two early round games at campus sites from Nov. 11 through Nov. 16.

Brandone Francis-Ramirez transferring out of Florida

Florida State center Jean Marc Christ Koumadje (21) fouls Florida guard Brandone Francis-Ramirez (2) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015, in Gainesville, Fla. (Matt Stamey, The Gainesville Sun via AP)
(Matt Stamey, The Gainesville Sun via AP)
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Brandone Francis-Ramirez is transferring out of the Florida program, the school announced on Wednesday.

A former top 40 recruit, Francis-Ramirez had his two seasons in Gainesville ruined by an academic issues and a loss of confidence. He was academically ineligible in 2014-15, practicing with the team during the second semester. He was granted a redshirt for the year, but he struggled to find any kind of a rhythm this past season. There was a two-month stretch in the middle of the year where he shot 6-for-58 from the floor and 2-for-31 from three.

On the season, he shot 20.2 percent from the floor and 16.9 percent from three.

“I want it to work out for him,” Gators coach Mike White said in a release. “We really appreciate what Brandone did here and wish him the best.”

One of Villanova’s title game stars undergoes knee surgery

Phil Booth, Jack McVeigh
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The forgotten star of the national title game underwent an arthroscopic on his left knee on Wednesday.

Phil Booth, who scored a season-high 20 points in the 2016 National Title game, will be a junior next season and one of the guys called upon to help replace Ryan Arcidiacono, who graduated. He should be ready to go by the middle of the summer; according to a statement put out by the program, Booth will need 6-to-8 weeks to heal.

“Phil is as mentally tough a young man as we have had at Villanova,” head coach Jay Wright said in the release. “He continually impresses our coaching staff with his outstanding attitude. Phil will attack this recovery challenge with great determination, as he does everything in life.”

Booth averaged 7.0 points and 2.2 assists this past season.