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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.”

College Basketball Talk Top 25: Villanova reigns supreme

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 03: Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats drives to the basket against Chris Clover #15 of the Saint Joseph's Hawks in the second half at The Pavilion on December 3, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Saint Joseph's Hawks 88-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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1. Villanova (8-0, Last Week: 1): We had Villanova No. 1 last week, they’re still undefeated and they’re now beating Big 5 foes by 30 points while Josh Hart is posting triple-doubles. Plus, they have that really nice win at Purdue in their back pocket.

2. UCLA (8-0, 11): You knew the Bruins were going to take a jump in the rankings after winning at Kentucky.

3. Kansas (7-1, 3): They’re still my pick to win the national title, but what have they done this season to deserve being ranked above UCLA or Villanova? Beat a depleted Duke team? Frankly, there’s an argument to be made that Baylor could be ranked over them as the best Big 12 team.

4. Duke (8-1, 4): Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden are back. Harry Giles III is not, and Grayson Allen missed the last game. Will we see them on Tuesday in the Jimmy V Classic?

5. Kentucky (7-1, 2): They drop after losing to UCLA at home, but let’s be honest, how much are they going to drop when they lost to the team currently ranked No. 2?

6. North Carolina (8-1, 5): The Tar Heels did not have their best night in a loss at Indiana, but there are going to be a lot of teams that don’t have their best night in that gym.

7. Gonzaga (8-0, 6): Another week, another two wins for Gonzaga. They landed a win over a depleted Arizona team over the weekend.

8. Baylor (8-0, 8): The Bears picked up another huge win over Xavier this week, winning by 15 points at home, but they remain at 8th in our rankings thanks to UCLA jumping up nine spots.

9. Creighton (8-0, 9): The Bluejays keep piling up the wins as Marcus Foster keeps piling up the points. The top of the Big East race is going to be a lot of fun this season.

10. Indiana (7-1, 12): Indiana has the two best wins in the country right now, but they also have that pesky loss to Fort Wayne. Inconsistency is going to be a killer for this team.

11. Wisconsin (7-2, 16)
12. Louisville (7-1, 13)
13. Xavier (7-1, 7)
14. Saint Mary’s (5-0, 15)
15. West Virginia (6-1, NR)
16. Purdue (6-2, 14)
17. South Carolina (8-0, 18)
18. Virginia (7-1, 10)
19. Cincinnati (7-1, 21)
20. Butler (8-0, 24)
21. USC (8-0, NR)
22. Florida (7-1, NR)
23. Syracuse (5-2, 19)
24. Notre Dame (8-0, NR)
25. Iowa State (6-2, 22)

DROPPED OUT: No. 17 Rhode Island, No. 20 Maryland, No. 23 Michigan, No. 25 Arizona
NEW ADDITIONS: No. 15 West Virginia, No. 21 USC, No. 22 Florida, No. 24 Notre Dame

Williams helps No. 3 North Carolina beats Radford 95-50

LAHAINA, HI - NOVEMBER 21: Kenny Williams #24 of the North Carolina Tar Heels pushed the ball up court during the second half of the Maui Invitational NCAA college basketball game against the Chaminade Silverswords at the Lahaina Civic Center on November 21, 2016 in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) Kenny Williams III finally had the shooting flurry that third-ranked North Carolina has been waiting to see.

The sophomore had 14 of his career-high 19 points in the opening five minutes, helping the Tar Heels build a huge early lead and beat Radford 95-50 on Sunday.

Williams made his first five shots, including all four 3-point tries, during that opening flurry. Quite a change for a player who was buried on the bench for a veteran team last year, making just 1 of 13 3-pointers and seeing his confidence suffer as a result.

“I’ve been waiting a year-and-a-half for a game like that,” Williams said. “I don’t want to say I knew it was coming, but with the confidence I have right now, I kind of expected it.”

While Williams’ play stood out, the Tar Heels (8-1) got a scare when they lost point guard Joel Berry II to a sprained left ankle early in the second half. The junior, averaging 16 points, came up hobbled as he drove into the paint and fell to the floor. He got up and walked slowly to the locker room for evaluation with 17:36 left, but didn’t return to the UNC bench with the Tar Heels up big.

Coach Roy Williams said Berry would have X-rays to confirm the sprain diagnosis and he was hopeful that Berry would be able to practice before Wednesday’s game against Davidson.

“We’ll have to wait and see what they say (Monday),” Williams said, “but I’m encouraged about it right now.”

The Tar Heels (8-1) were coming off a loss at No. 13 Indiana in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They had no trouble in this one, running out to an 18-4 lead behind Kenny Williams’ opening burst and shooting 57 percent in the first half to build a 51-27 lead by the break.

Justin Cousin scored 14 points to lead the Highlanders (3-5), who shot 31 percent.

“Tough team, man,” Radford coach Mike Jones said. “They’re so big and physical. We played some good defense inside and they made the shot over us and that’s going to happen.”

BIG PICTURE

Radford: The Highlanders, picked sixth in the Big South Conference, had no way to slow the Tar Heels’ early tear. And that led to a fourth loss by double-digit margins, three coming by at least 21 points. Still, Radford isn’t likely to run up against a team such as UNC in the Big South, either.

UNC: The big shooting performance from Williams and Berry’s injury stood out here, with the Tar Heels potentially bolstering their perimeter scoring punch while seeing their floor leader go down to an injury.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Tar Heels will slide a bit in the AP Top 25 when the new poll comes out Monday, though losing on the road to a team ranked No. 13 nationally likely won’t cause a big drop.

POINT GUARDS

If Berry sits out, senior Nate Britt – who has played both guard positions in his career – would appear to be the next man up at the point. Freshman Seventh Woods also will figure into the mix; he had nine points in 22 minutes – both season highs – while getting plenty of work after Berry’s exit.

WILLIAMS’ SHOT

Williams, a 6-foot-4 wing from Midlothian, Virginia, made 5 of 6 3-pointers with a good-looking and confident stroke. Four of those came in the opening minutes, the last one a wide-open look from the left wing that brought Smith Center fans to a roar.

Williams said he worked in the offseason to minimize how much his guide hand pushes on the ball to affect his release.

“He’s put in a lot of time,” Roy Williams said. “I said even last year when he wasn’t putting the ball in the basket that he was going to be a good defensive player and I’m not sure he’s not our best perimeter defender right now.”

UP NEXT

Radford: The Highlanders host Elon on Saturday.

UNC: The Tar Heels play at home against Davidson on Wednesday night.

More AP college basketball at http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Top25

South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell suspended

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 26:  Sindarius Thornwell #0 of the South Carolina Gamecocks drives to the basket defended by Tyler Lydon #20 of the Syracuse Orange in the second half during the Brooklyn Hoops Holiday Invitational at Barclays Center on November 26, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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South Carolina senior guard Sindarius Thornwell has been suspended indefinitely due to a violation of athletic department policy, the school announced on Sunday.

Thornwell is averaging 18.7 points, 6.7 boards and 4.1 assists for the Gamecocks, who are undefeated and sitting at No. 20 nationally. Thornwell is the reigning SEC Player of the Week.

South Carolina plays FIU in Columbia at 2:00 p.m. ET.

Melo Trimble’s heroics get him a shout-out from Wale in a song

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 26:  Melo Trimble #2 of the Maryland Terrapins celebrates after hitting the game winning shot as they defeated the Kansas State Wildcats 69-68 during the championship game of the Barclays Center Classic at Barclays Center on November 26, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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For the fourth time in the first three weeks of the college basketball season, Melo Trimble won a game for Maryland.

His two free throws in the final ten seconds gave the Terps a come-from-behind, 71-70 win over Oklahoma State in College Park, and the win not only was the sixth time this season that the Terps have won a game decided by six points or less, it improved Trimble’s record in those games to 26-5.

26-5!

That’s an insane statistic, one that should allow Maryland fans to truly appreciate just how valuable their junior point guard is.

At least one Maryland fan does. Rapper Wale, who hails from Maryland, just outside DC, made sure to name-drop his favorite Terp in a verse in a song he released on Saturday night:

And you better believe that Trimble is aware of it:

"My therapist terrible , I'm uh Terp Melo Trimbling" @wale

A photo posted by Melo Trimble (@olem__) on

Rick Pitino on Grand Canyon: ‘The toughest crowd I’ve ever faced’

Rick Pitino
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Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said after his No. 14 Cardinals struggled to put away a tough Grand Canyon team on the road had some kind – and hyperbolic – words to say about the atmosphere.

“This, in college basketball in my 40 plus year, was the toughest crowd I’ve ever faced,” he said.

Umm, but Rick, you’ve coached in the Big East and the ACC! This was tougher than any of those crowds?

“Whether we go to Duke, Kentucky, nothing was as tough as that crowd tonight,” he said.

Well, now.

That seems like a bit much, but to be fair, the atmosphere there was, shall we say, lit: