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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. 6 Oregon wins another nail-biter, 75-73 over Stanford

EUGENE, OR - FEBRUARY 18: Jordan Bell #1 of the Oregon Ducks celebrates after making a dunk during the first half of the game against the Colorado Buffaloes at Matthew Knight Arena on February 18, 2017 in Eugene, Oregon.  (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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STANFORD, Calif. — Jordan Bell scored on a putback with 14 seconds left to give No. 6 Oregon its second straight nail-biting victory in a rare Bay Area sweep as the Ducks beat Stanford 75-73 on Saturday.

Bell’s game-winner followed Dillon Brooks’ last-second, tiebreaking 3-pointer three nights earlier at California to give Oregon (26-4, 15-2 Pac-12) its second sweep of its conference Bay Area rivals since 1976. The other came two years ago.

Tyler Dorsey scored 15 points to lead Oregon, while Brooks added 14.

Reid Travis had 27 points and 14 rebounds to lead the way for the Cardinal (14-14, 6-10), but committed a turnover on the final possession to end any comeback hopes.

Stanford trailed by as many as 12 points in the first half but battled back to tie the game five times in the second half. But it took until that fifth equalizer for the Cardinal to take their first lead since being up 9-8 early in the first half.

Travis’ jumper in the lane made it 71-69 with less than 3 minutes left but the lead was short-lived as Brooks hit a jumper at the other end to tie it.

The game was tied at 73 when the Ducks managed four offensive rebounds on one possession before finally converting on Bell’s shot with 14 seconds left. It capped a wild sequence that started when Dylan Ennis missed an off-balance 3-pointer as the shot clock ran down. Payton Pritchard missed on the putback attempt before Bell converted his.

Travis lost the ball in the paint at the other end to seal the victory for Oregon.

BIG PICTURE

Oregon: The Ducks capped a 7-1 February with just their second road sweep of the conference season as they peaking at the right time of year. Their only loss in that span came on a late 3-pointer by Lonzo Ball in an 82-79 loss at UCLA. Oregon has one more road game left to finish the regular season at last-place Oregon State, and remains in contention for a Pac-12 title and a top two seeding in the NCAA Tournament.

Stanford: The Cardinal were unable to follow up home wins against California and Oregon State when faced by tougher competition from the Ducks. That has been an issue all season for Stanford, which fell to 0-8 against ranked opponents.

UP NEXT

Oregon: Visits Oregon State on Saturday.

Stanford: Visits Colorado on Thursday.

Shamet’s 23 points leads Wichita State to share of MVC title

WICHITA, KS - NOVEMBER 13:  Guard Landry Shamet #11 of the Wichita State Shockers dribbles the ball up court against the Charleston Southern Buccaneers during the first half on November 13, 2015 at Charles Koch Arena in Wichita, Kansas.  (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) Landry Shamet scored a career-best 23 points as No. 25 Wichita State clinched at least a share of the Missouri Valley Conference title for a fourth straight season with an 86-67 victory over Missouri State on Saturday.

The title is the fifth in six seasons for the Shockers (27-4, 17-1), who have won 12 straight games and appear well on their way to a sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

Shamet finished 9-of-12 shooting, 5 of 8 from 3-point range, while topping his previous best of 20 points – set against South Dakota State in December. Shaq Morris added 20 points for Wichita State, which has won 14 straight games over the Bears (16-15, 7-11), while Conner Frankamp had 14 points.

Dequon Miller led Missouri State with 19 points, while Alize Johnson had 18 points and 12 rebounds.

The Shockers led by as many as 10 points in the first half before Missouri State cut the lead to 50-46 early in the second half. However, Wichita State followed by hitting five of its 11 3-pointers for the game during a 20-8 run that pushed the lead to 70-54 and put the game out of reach.

Shamet hit four of his 3-pointers in the second half for the Shockers, who added to the school record for 3-pointers in a season (274) they set in a win earlier in the week against Evansville.

BIG PICTURE

Wichita State: The Shockers entered The Associated Press poll for the first time in a year this week, and they aren’t going anywhere yet after wins over Evansville on Tuesday and Saturday’s win over Missouri State. The real question for Wichita State is whether its late-season surge is enough for the school – rated 44th in the NCAA’s RPI ratings – to have already secured an NCAA Tournament berth, if it doesn’t win the MVC Tournament next week.

Missouri State: Johnson’s double-double was the 16th of the season for the 6-foot-9 junior. Despite outrebounding Wichita State 33-31, though, the Bears were able to improve on an 80-62 loss to the Shockers in Kansas on Feb. 9, allowing Wichita State to shoot 54.1 percent (33 of 61) in the win.

UP NEXT

Both teams next play at the MVC Tournament in St. Louis from March 2-5.

For more college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

No. 11 Kentucky rallies past No. 13 Florida 76-66

LEXINGTON, KY - JANUARY 31:  Malik Monk #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball during the game against the Georgia Bulldogs at Rupp Arena on January 31, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Not satisfied with making perimeter jumpers, Malik Monk drove to the basket to create numerous opportunities at the free throw line and found openings to feed his Kentucky teammates.

The freshman guard wasn’t aware until afterward of how many points he had piled up, but he knew that they helped the 11th-ranked Wildcats earn their most important victory this season.

Monk scored 30 of his 33 points in the second half, Bam Adebayo added 18 points with 15 rebounds and Kentucky rallied past No. 13 Florida for a 76-66 victory Saturday to take over the Southeastern Conference lead.

“I didn’t know about that until after the game,” said Monk, who made 10 of 11 free throws and five 3-pointers along with a team-high five assists. That contribution definitely came in handy as point guard De’Aaron Fox missed the game with a knee contusion.

“I was just playing, but it was crazy,” Monk added. “I was way more patient in the second half than I was in the first half.”

While another week remains in SEC play for both teams, the Wildcats (24-5, 14-2) took an important step toward clinching the regular season title by twice rallying from eight points down to win the pivotal matchup. And they can thank Monk for making it happen as he scored 14 points during an 18-10 run that tied the game at 55 with 9:54 remaining.

The high-scoring Monk ended up with the most points in one half by a player under coach John Calipari, who was also taken aback by the outburst.

“Oh, he got 30 in a half?” Calipari said. “No wonder when I got on him about a couple of bad shots, he looked at me like I was crazy.”

Adebayo also overcame a slow start with 12 second-half points after grabbing 11 boards to rally Kentucky.

The 6-foot-10 freshman followed Monk’s key stretch with six straight points before Monk added seven more in between lobbing a pass to Adebayo for a 70-60 lead with 4:04 left. Monk sandwiched two free throws around layups by Isaiah Briscoe and Adebayo, points that proved critical in thwarting rally attempts by the Gators (23-6, 13-3).

Kentucky shot 64 percent in the second half to avenge a 22-point loss to Florida earlier this month. The Wildcats also outrebounded the Gators 48-30 with Adebayo grabbing 15 for the second straight game.

KeVaughn Allen had 24 points and Justin Leon added 13 for Florida, which had won nine straight. Devin Robinson had nine points and 11 rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

Florida: The Gators had several chances to make things hard on Kentucky away but didn’t succeed, letting a 12-point lead slip away in the first half before letting a couple of second-half edges slip away. Several cold stretches didn’t help but rebounding was telling in this rematch as they were beaten on the glass after owning the boards 54-29 in the first meeting in Gainesville three weeks ago.

Most difficult was stopping Monk, who seemed to have answer for every defense they tried to contain him.

“We had a couple of options that did a good job on him in Gainesville,” coach Mike White said. “We just didn’t do quite as good of a job (in Lexington), especially down the stretch.”

Kentucky: The Wildcats started raggedly without Fox but clawed back throughout thanks to Monk’s scoring. Others chipped in big on the glass, as Derek Willis had nine rebounds, Briscoe eight and Dominique Hawkins six. They succeeded despite committing 16 turnovers, but only four after halftime.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Kentucky’s gutty win could move the Wildcats back into the Top 10.

ON A ROLL

Adebayo posted his second straight double-double and has 40 points and 30 rebounds the past two games. He’s the first with consecutive double-doubles since Tyler Ulis did so last March.

“My confidence just keeps building,” said Adebayo, who also had a career-best 15 rebounds at Missouri.

FOUL TROUBLE

Four Gators had four fouls, including guards Kasey Hill and Allen.

UP NEXT

Florida: The Gators host Arkansas on Wednesday night.

Kentucky: Hosts Vanderbilt on Tuesday night in its home finale.

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

Malik Monk scores 30 in second half to lead No. 11 Kentucky past No. 13 Florida

LEXINGTON, KY - FEBRUARY 25:  Malik Monk #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrates during the game against the  Florida Gators at Rupp Arena on February 25, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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The reason why No. 11 Kentucky is still a national title contender, the reason why no one will ever be able to say that this team cannot get to a Final Four regardless of how much they have struggled over the course of the last month of the season, is Malik Monk.

He’s also the reason why that run isn’t all that likely.

Simply put, he’s college basketball’s single-most unstoppable force, and, once again, he showed us all why on Saturday. Monk scored 30 of his 33 points after halftime and added six assists as the Wildcats outscored No. 13 Florida 32-14 in the final 13 minutes of a 76-66 win that put them in the driver’s seat for the SEC regular season title.

The Gators and the Wildcats entered Saturday tied for first in the league at 13-2. Florida was able to jump out to early leads in both halves, but it was Kentucky that took control down the stretch. Much of that credit goes to Monk, whose shooting brought an energy to Rupp Arena that we haven’t seen in a while and brought on an effort defensively that doesn’t always show up when Kentucky takes the floor.

For a while during the second half, Kentucky looked like the team that we saw early in the season despite the fact that De’Aaron Fox wasn’t playing due to a knee bruise. Their athletes were flying around defensively, they were getting out and running in transition, they were throwing down crazy dunks. That’s the way they played in November and December, when they were scoring in the 90s on a nightly basis and beating teams like Arizona State by 46 points.

That coincided with the time that Monk caught fire.

It’s not just energy that he brings. It’s not just the confidence you see Kentucky’s players get when he’s draining 30-footers like they’re free throws. When he’s scoring, it opens everything up for them on the offensive end of the floor. He’s a shooter with gravity, dragging defenders with him, and he’s a willing and capable enough passer to be able to find open teammates when he puts the ball on the floor. That Kentucky was able to put this kind of a run on a very good Florida team tells you all you need to know about how dangerous they can be.

But here’s the issue: to get to a Final Four, Kentucky, who seems likely to end up around a No. 3 or No. 4 seed, is going to have to beat three really good teams in a row. To win a national title, they’re going to have to do it five straight times. Can Monk catch fire for three straight weeks?

Since the start of the new year, Monk has scored at least 20 points in consecutive games just once — one of those games was a lost at Tennessee — and it’s probably worth noting that the best win Kentucky has in a game where Monk finished below his season scoring average is probably Arkansas at home.

There are a couple of x-factors here, the most obvious of which is De’Aaron Fox getting back to full strength. Between rolled ankles, bruised knees and illnesses, Fox just hasn’t looked like himself for a month. When he’s right, he can be a difference-maker, as can Bam Adebayo, who went for 18 points and 15 boards against a Florida team playing without John Egbunu. He had 22 points and 15 boards against Missouri on Wednesday, and has been playing his best basketball of the season the last couple of weeks.

It should go without saying that Kentucky is better when those two are better. It reduces their reliance on one player doing something that, statistically, is not all that likely.

But they aren’t what makes Kentucky dangerous.

That’s Monk.

He’s good enough that he can literally carry Kentucky to a win over anyone.

But unless Kentucky can find a way to be consistently good on the nights where the inconsistently great Monk isn’t, it’s hard to imagine them making a run to Phoenix.

No. 10 Duke falls at Miami behind Bruce Brown’s 23 points

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - FEBRUARY 15: Luke Kennard #5 of the Duke Blue Devils gets off the ground during Duke's game against the Virginia Cavaliers at John Paul Jones Arena on February 15, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Chet Strange/Getty Images)
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No. 10 Duke is back to not being back again, right?

The Blue Devils went down to Coral Gables on Saturday afternoon and lost 55-50 to Miami. It’s their second consecutive loss, coming just three days and 1,500 miles after the Blue Devils lost at Syracuse.

That’s the kind of week that will probably convince people that the Blue Devils were, in fact, fraudulent all along.

And frankly, that’s a pretty dumb way to view what’s happened to Duke over the course of the last four days.

Because here’s the truth: Duke lost by five points on the road in league play to a team that’s currently sitting as a No. 8 seed in the most recent NBC Sports bracket projection and in a game where they were only favored by one. They lost on the same floor that North Carolina lost on by 15 points earlier this month to a team that is now tied with them in the ACC standings. They lost that game playing without their starting point guard, Grayson Allen, who sat out with an ankle injury. And playing without their starting point guard, the Blue Devils scored just .794 points-per-possession in a game where Luke Kennard and Jayson Tatum combined to shoot just 10-for-36 from the floor.

That’s not a bad loss.

Neither is losing on the road to a Syracuse team that is just a game behind them in the ACC standings on a banked-in, buzzer-beating 23-footer in a game where Allen shot like he was shaving points in a game where he tried to battle through the ankle injury that kept him out of the lineup on Saturday. For what it’s worth, the spread in that game was Duke winning by three.

The point here isn’t to makes excuses for Duke.

The point is that taking a pair of close road losses in conference play while battling through some injuries does not a bad team make.

The ACC is a bear this year. North Carolina is the only team in the conference that doesn’t have at least five league losses with more than a week left in the regular season, and they might be the best team in college basketball. We knew this heading into the season, and it’s proven to be true. Everyone took their lumps in league play, and Duke was no different.

I’m not here to tell you what you should think of Duke. Personally, I think that a team with Allen, Kennard and Tatum that defended the way they defended today can win a national title. If you think their lack of depth, post presence and interior defense cannot win six games in March, there’s some validity to that.

What I am here to tell you is that these last four days should not change your opinion of them.

Winning on the road in league play is hard, and Duke learned that the hard way this week.