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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.”

Looking Forward: The Way-Too-Early 2016-17 Preseason All-American Team

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)
(AP Photo/Ben McKeown)
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With the NBA Draft’s Early Entry process coming to a close on Wednesday evening, we finally have a concrete idea of what college basketball is going to look like in 2016-17.

That’s why we were able to give you an early Preseason Top 25.

And that’s why we were able to go through and breakdown each of the seven major conferences for you.

     RELATED: Big Ten | AAC | SEC | Pac 12

Now?

Here’s an early look at what a Preseason All-American team will look like:

     RELATED: Big 12 | ACC | A-10 | Big East

FIRST TEAM ALL-AMERICANS

  • Monte’ Morris, Iowa State: If the Cyclones have any chance of making it back to the NCAA tournament, it’ll be on the shoulders of Morris. The point guard crop this year is loaded. Half-a-dozen guys could be in this spot, but Morris is our pick to be the best of the bunch.
  • Grayson Allen, Duke: Allen’s role may reduced a bit with Duke’s talented roster, but we’re betting that he’ll still end up being the No. 1 option on the offensive end of the floor.
  • Josh Hart, Villanova: The best player and leading scorer for the reigning national champ returned to school. The least we could do was show him some love.
  • Josh Jackson, Kansas: Jackson should match and may better Andrew Wiggins’ numbers (17.1 points) on a Kansas team that is preseason top three, and he’ll do it without the same kind of expectations.
  • Ivan Rabb, Cal: Rabb was the best NBA prospect to return to school. With Jaylen Brown and Ty Wallace gone, the offense will run through him. Expect a huge season.

SECOND TEAM ALL-AMERICANS

  • Melo Trimble, Maryland: Trimble’s sophomore season was derailed by a case of the yips and a team that didn’t fit together all that well. We’re betting on him turning that around.
  • Lonzo Ball, UCLA: UCLA could be a top five team this year. They could also miss the tournament. Who knows. But if they end up being the former, it will be because Ball had a ridiculous freshman season.
  • Dillon Brooks, Oregon: Brooks is the best player and the leading returning scorer on a preseason top five team. He may not be the best NBA prospect in the country, but he’s a damn good college player.
  • Bam Adebayo, Kentucky: Picking an all-american from Kentucky this season is tough. We’re going to go with Bam, who is the safe pick and could end up averaging a double-double for the Wildcats.
  • Thomas Bryant, Indiana: Bryant is in essentially the same spot as Rabb. Potential first round pick returns to school, becomes a bigger part of the offense, shines. If he takes a step forward defensively as well he’ll be a first-teamer come March.
Oregon forward Elgin Cook, from left, forward Dillon Brooks and guard Tyler Dorsey react after a play against Washington during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinal round of the Pac-12 men's tournament Thursday, March 10, 2016, in Las Vegas. Oregon won 83-77. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Oregon forward Dillon Brooks and guard Tyler Dorsey (AP Photo/John Locher)

THIRD TEAM ALL-AMERICANS

  • Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: Williams-Goss averaged 15.6 points and 5.9 assists as a sophomore with Washington and spent a year sitting out at a school that turned Kelly Olynyk and Kyle Wiltjer into all-americans during a redshirt year.
  • Mo Watson, Creighton: Watson was criminally underrated last season and now he’ll be paired in a back court with Marcus Foster. The ‘Jays are sneaky-good.
  • Jayson Tatum, Duke: We took Tatum over Giles because we think Duke will have two all-americans and because we are concerned about the status of Giles’ knees.
  • Trevon Bluiett, Xavier: Bluiett was the leading scorer for Xavier last season and will be back in school after testing the draft waters.
  • Austin Nichols, Virginia: Nichols is a perfect fit for Virginia’s front court. He’ll be better than Anthony Gill was last season, and Gill was really, really good.
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)

NEW PODCAST: NBA Draft deadline winners and losers

Maryland guard Melo Trimble (AP Photo/Matt Hazlett)
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With the change to the NCAA deadline for underclassmen to withdraw from the NBA Draft moving from mid-April to May 25, college programs and fan bases across the country anxiously awaited Wednesday night’s deadline for news on players still going through the decision-making process.

With the dust having settled Thursday morning, the NBC Sports College Basketball Talk crew (Rob Dauster, Raphielle Johnson and Scott Phillips) got together to discuss the winners and losers. Among those discussed are Oregon, four Big Ten teams (Indiana, Maryland, Purdue and Wisconsin), and USC. It should be noted that Maryland was discussed before news of Justin Jackson’s commitment broke, so their front court looks a little different due to that.

We also touched on our updates to the Top 25, with the Boilermakers making a move up in the rankings, and Marcus Lee’s decision to transfer from Kentucky. As always, you can either click “play” in the Soundcloud player below or listen via iTunes or the Stitcher app. Thanks for listening!

In-state rivals BYU, Utah to meet again in 2017

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - FEBRUARY 27: Head coach Larry Krystkowiak of the Utah Utes gestures to his team during the first half of their game against the Arizona Wildcats at the Jon M. Huntsman Center on February 27, 2016 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
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The series between BYU and Utah has been an intense one, with the two programs meeting a total of 257 times with the Cougars holding a slim 129-128 advantage. But after last season’s meeting, a comfortable Utah win mired by the ejection of BYU’s Nick Emery for striking guard Brandon Taylor late in the second half, threatened the future of the series.

Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak wanted to call a halt to things, and sure enough it was announced in January that the Cougars and Runnin’ Utes wouldn’t play each other during the 2016-17 season. But the “break” will only last one season, as Utah announced Thursday that the two teams will meet in Provo during the 2017-18 season.

Athletic director Chris Hill stated in a release that also announced non-conference series with Butler and Xavier set to begin this season that the game will be played in either November or December 2017.

Hopefully the one-year hiatus will be the only hiccup in this series, one that began way back in 1909 and managed to endure changes such as the run of conference realignment that landed Utah in the Pac-12 and BYU in the WCC. As for those games against Butler (November 28) and Xavier (December 10), Utah will host the Bulldogs and visit the Musketeers this season with the return games for both series to be played during the 2017-18 season.

News of the resumption of the BYU/Utah series was first reported by the Salt Lake Tribune.

Maryland lands commitment from four-star forward

Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon instructs his team during the first half of a second-round men's college basketball game against Hawaii in the NCAA Tournament in Spokane, Wash., Sunday, March 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)
(AP Photo/Young Kwak)
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No coach in the country has had a better 24 hours than Mark Turgeon of Maryland.

The morning after Melo Trimble announced that he will be returning to College Park for his junior season, Turgeon landed a commitment from Justin Jackson, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward from Las Vegas by way of Canada. Jackson is a top 50 player in the class of 2016.

Jackson should immediately help the Terps replenish a front court that was decimated by early entry. A versatile athlete with a ridiculous wingspan and a still-developing perimeter game, Jackson will likely spend his freshman season playing a power forward role, maybe even as a small-ball five.

This fits perfectly with the roster that Maryland has for next season. Not only will Trimble be flanked by freshman Anthony Cowan, a now-healthy Dion Wiley and Jared Nickens, the Terps add freshman wings Kevin Heurter and Micah Thomas as well as Duquesne transfer L.G. Gill. They needed depth up front, particularly at the four.

And remember, when Maryland had their most success with Trimble — his freshman year — they went small and spread the floor with Jake Layman at the four. Jackson may not have quite the impact that Layman did that season, but he can play that role for the Terps.

Alec Peters withdraws from NBA Draft, will he transfer?

Alec Peters, Valparaiso (Getty Images)
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Valparaiso forward Alec Peters became the final player to announce that he has withdrawn from the NBA Draft on Thursday, waiting until the day after the deadline to make it official.

The 6-foot-9 Peters was one of the best mid-major players in the country this past season, averaging 18.5 points and 8.0 boards while shooting 44.0 percent from three for the Horizon League champs, a team many considered to be the best mid-major team in the sport.

Here’s why Peters’ decision is interesting: He’s a junior that will be eligible as a graduate transfer, meaning that if he leaves Valpo — like Bryce Drew, the coach that recruited him, who left for Vanderbilt — he will be able to play elsewhere in 2016-17.

How many top 25 programs could use a 6-foot-9 forward that can score in the post and posted shooting splits of 50.5/44.0/85.0? Hint: The answer is all of them.

Will he leave school?