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 Futures Watch Part II: Maryland through Seton Hall

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Over the course of the next three days, we at College Basketball Talk will be cruising through the best, the most surprising and the most disappointing teams in college basketball.

As of today, how should we view the 45 most interesting teams in the country based on preseason expectation? 

Are we more confident in them? Less confident? Still unsure?

We used five different labels here to help define how we feel about each of the 45 teams mentioned:

  • Bet The Mortgage
  • Raise
  • Check
  • Fold
  • Get Your Stuff And Go Home

Today, we go through everyone from Maryland to Seton Hall.

Let’s get into it.

MARYLAND: Check

The Terrapins don’t lack for young talent, with the sophomore class of Anthony Cowan Jr., Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson being joined by talented freshmen Darry Morsell and Bruno Fernando. But the turnover issues of last season are still present, with Maryland turning the ball over on more than 23 percent of its possessions. Given how tight the Big Ten stands to be in the middle of the conference standings, giving away possessions could be the difference between earning a double-bye in the conference tournament and being in a spot where a team needs to go on a run to ensure itself of an NCAA tournament bid. Maryland’s been better with the turnovers of late, but I’d like to see this be the case against high-level competition before raising my bet. Also, while none of Maryland’s losses have been particularly “bad,” the losses to St. Bonaventure and Syracuse mean that this team has just one noteworthy non-conference win on its resume (Butler). (Raphielle Johnson)

MIAMI: Bet The Mortgage

I’ve been all-in on Miami since the preseason. I thought they were going to win the ACC before the season started, before they went into Minnesota and sent the Gophers on this mini-spiral, before Duke lost and it became trendy to think that someone other than Duke was the best team in that conference. That was also before I knew that Dewan Huell was going to be as good as he’s been. We saw on Saturday what happens when Duke has to deal with ball-screens, and Jim Larrañaga loves ball-screens and has a roster full of talented, athletic guards that thrive in them. (Rob Dauster)

MICHIGAN: Fold

The Wolverines have not exactly been all that impressive this season. They blew a 20-point lead to Ohio State and lost to LSU in the Maui Invitational opener. The overtime win over UCLA on Saturday and a win at Texas on Tuesday do make me second-guess myself here, but I just have a difficult time projecting much out of a John Beilein-coached team with this many point guard question marks a month into the season. (RD)

MICHIGAN STATE: Bet The Mortgage

The Spartans have only lost to another national contender in Duke the first week of the season. Looking as deep and balanced as any team in the country, Michigan State has five double-figure scorers and a bench full of upperclass veterans. They might break the Big Ten’s title drought. (Scott Phillips)

Jordan Murphy (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

MINNESOTA: Fold

Since nearly blowing a lead while playing three Alabama players, the Golden Gophers have lost three of five games, including bad double-digit losses at Nebraska and Arkansas. For a team that hopes to make a run in March, Minnesota hasn’t shown enough recent consistency against good teams to look like a major threat. Jordan Murphy looks like one of this season’s biggest new stars but Minnesota is in a recent tailspin and the heart of the conference schedule has yet to begin. (SP)

NEVADA: Raise

The Wolf Pack missed out on two quality wins as they dropped close ones to Texas Tech and TCU last week, but this is still the team to beat in the Mountain West. The Martin twins have hit the ground running during their first season on the court after transferring in from NC State, and in Jordan Caroline they’ve got a versatile forward who’s averaging 17.4 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Purdue transfer Kendall Stephens has shot the ball well from the perimeter, and players such as Josh Hall, Lindsey Drew and Hallice Cooke are all solid contributors as well. UNLV, Boise State and Wyoming are also worth keeping tabs on in the Mountain West, but Eric Musselman’s ability to blend together talented transfers with players who have already been part of the program is what makes Nevada such a threat. (RJ)

NORTH CAROLINA: Check

I had North Carolina down as a raise until I realized that they were ranked No. 7 in both polls. If that’s where they are in the national consciousness, that’s probably fair. I’d argue that’s their ceiling. Remember, we’re talking about a team that is currently getting all-american performances out of Luke Maye on a nightly basis, a team where Maye is the only big man on the roster that isn’t a freshman. If being a top ten team is the baseline we’re working with here, then North Carolina is a check. (RD)

NORTHWESTERN: Fold

Not showing nearly the same focus and intensity as last season’s NCAA tournament team, Northwestern has been sluggish defensively against strong competition. Only owning an overtime home win over Illinois, the Wildcats have fallen to Creighton, Texas Tech, Georgia Tech and Purdue. The next stretch of three non-conference games against DePaul, Valparaiso and Oklahoma are key. (SP)

NOTRE DAME: Raise

Although the Fighting Irish suffered a puzzling home loss to Ball State, there is still reason to be optimistic. Bonzie Colson hasn’t found his touch from the outside and could get hot at any point. Younger role players like Rex Pflueger and D.J. Harvey have room to grow. Notre Dame has a favorable ACC schedule. Notre Dame’s offense is still potent and they have plenty of weapons. (SP)

OKLAHOMA: Raise

The Sooners have Trae Young.

He’s really good.

Bet on the Sooners. (Travis Hines)

OREGON: Check

When it comes to the on-court product, the impulse when it comes to Oregon is to trust that Dana Altman will have it all figured out for conference play and the Ducks will be a Pac-12 contender. Maybe that happens again this season, but thus far the Ducks have largely been a jump-shooting team that struggles when it comes to getting to the foul line (254th in free throw rate). And when you’re shooting just 36.1 percent from three, that could be an issue. Despite the additions of talented offensive options such as Elijah Brown and Troy Brown, Oregon hasn’t been as efficient offensively as past Altman-coached teams have been. And I’d argue that this team doesn’t have as many versatile players who can fill a variety of roles on both ends of the court as past Oregon teams have possessed, either. Don’t give up on Oregon, but don’t be in a hurry to add money to the pot either. (RJ)

Trae Young (Harry How/Getty Images)

PURDUE: Raise

Minus a poor stretch at Battle 4 Atlantis, Purdue has looked like a veteran team with a number of options. Owning quality wins over Arizona, Louisville, Marquette, Maryland and Northwestern, the Boilermakers look like a potentially strong team in a weak Big Ten. Sophomore guard Carsen Edwards has blossomed as a scorer and he has weapons like Dakota Mathias, Vincent Edwards and Isaac Haas around him. (SP)

RHODE ISLAND: Raise

That win over Seton Hall, which came without the injured E.C. Matthews, will do wonders for URI’s profile as it looks to earn a second consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. The perimeter is deep and talented, even without Matthews, with Jared Terrell, Jeff Dowtin Jr., Jarvis Garrett and an emerging freshman in Darron “Fatts” Russell among the contributors. The front court is the question mark; if Nikola Akele, Cyril Langevine and Andre Berry can provide consistent production the Rams should be able to take care of business in the Atlantic 10 and get back to the NCAA tournament. I’d raise on Dan Hurley’s team, but maybe exercise some caution with the dollar amount until Matthews returns to the court. (RJ)

SAINT MARY’S: Check

This is a good team and the biggest threat to Gonzaga in the race for the WCC title. But here’s the question that arose from those losses to Washington State and Georgia in the Wooden Legacy: can this group slow down dynamic guards? Malachi Flynn did his thing for Washington State, and in the third-place game Georgia’s Juwan Parker, William Jackson and Tyree Crump all performed well. The Gaels haven’t lost since, taking care of Cal, Sacramento State and Seattle, but that’s to be expected. Emmett Naar and Jock Landale are capable, talented players who will lead the way, and Randy Bennett’s team will once again produce a gaudy win total. But due to the lack of a marquee non-conference win, those games against Gonzaga are of even greater importance to Saint Mary’s. Talent-wise this is an NCAA tournament team, but will the profile be good enough to get Saint Mary’s a good seed as well come March? That’s my concern. (RJ)

SETON HALL: Raise

So here’s the thing about Seton Hall: To date, they’ve been about what I expected them to be entering the season. They look like they may be the best team in the Big East not named Villanova. They are tough. They defend. They are nestled somewhere in the top 15 nationally. But I’m still bullish on the Pirates because their two best players haven’t been their two best players. What does that mean? Well, Angel Delgado was a preseason all-american. Khadeen Carrington was a member of the preseason all-Big East team. Through the first month and change of the season, Desi Rodriguez has been Seton Hall’s all-american and Myles Powell has been an all-Big East player. That’s explainable – Delgado is dealing with double-teams, Carrington is still figuring out the point guard role – but it also means the Pirates haven’t yet reached their ceiling. That’s a good thing. (RD)

Desi Rodriguez (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

VIDEO: Wisconsin beats Western Kentucky on controversial blocking call 90 feet from the hoop

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Wisconsin freshman Brad Davison helped the Badgers sneak past Western Kentucky for an 81-80 win on Wednesday night by drawing a blocking call 90 feet from the basket on an inbounds play with two seconds left.

With the game tied at 80 and the Badgers in the double bonus, the blocking foul on Western Kentucky’s Marek Nelson sent Davison to the free throw line to clinch the game. Davison made the first free throw and purposely missed the second to give Wisconsin the one-point win.

Obviously, some smart coaching from Gard (if he called it) and a good play from Davison to elicit the call from the official. But for Western Kentucky to lose like this? On a call like this? That’s a really poor look from the officials, who could have just as easily called this a charge. Or even better, let the play go and settle for a likely overtime between two tied teams.

That referee’s call, on what’s very close to a non-basketball play, decided Wisconsin’s win over the Hilltoppers.

Western Kentucky head coach Rick Stansbury was furious over the call and was hoping the officials could check to see if Davison was out of bounds.

Brunson leads No. 1 Villanova in rout of Temple

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Jalen Brunson had 22 of his career-high 31 points in No. 1 Villanova’s dominating first half and Omari Spellman scored 27 to help lead the Wildcats to an 87-67 rout of Temple on Wednesday night.

Donte DiVincenzo added 12 points for Villanova (11-0), which won its unprecedented 22nd straight Big 5 game. The Wildcats last lost a contest in the Philadelphia round-robin series to Temple on Dec. 5, 2012. The Big 5 also consists of La Salle, Saint Joseph’s and Penn.

The Wildcats, who moved into the top spot in the rankings for the third straight season this week, looked like the best team in the country in a dominating opening 20 minutes.

With his dad Rick – a former Temple standout and current assistant coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves who played nine seasons in the NBA – sitting two rows behind the Villanova bench, Brunson led the way.

The 6-foot-2 junior point guard made 8 of 10 shots, including 5 of 7 3-pointers, and added four assists while controlling the opening 20 minutes.

The performance surely impressed Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown and Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons, who were among the sellout crowd of 10,206 at Temple.

Quinton Rose scored 27 points for the Owls (6-3), who began the week No. 11 in the RPI rankings. It was the third straight season Temple played Villanova as a No. 1, and the Owls fell to 2-18 all-time against No. 1-ranked opponents.

The Temple student section was fired up in the pregame, hoping to help the Owls end Villanova’s Philadelphia dominance, but the Wildcats gave them little for which to cheer.

The Wildcats scored the first seven points as Temple came out cold, missing its first five shots and committing three turnovers.

And Villanova went from there.

The Wildcats took their biggest lead of the half on DiVincenzo’s 3-pointer that made it 25-5 with 11 minutes left before the break. And the lead reached 20 again on Brunson’s 3-pointer that made it 28-8 44 seconds later.

Temple rallied by scoring the next 13 points over 3 1/2 minutes to pull within 28-21 on Josh Brown’s jumper with 6:45 left before the break.

But Villanova continued making shots and Brunson, appropriately, finished the first-half scoring with a 3-pointer with 47 seconds left that gave the Wildcats a 46-29 lead.

Villanova shot 59 percent from the field and 50 percent from the arc in the opening 20 minutes.

The second half was a mere formality.

BIG PICTURE

Villanova: The Wildcats likely will hold the top spot in the rankings for at least another week, as they will take nine days off for exams before returning to the court. They will next play a nonconference game against Hofstra, the program Wildcats coach Jay Wright led before coming to Villanova, on Dec. 22 before beginning Big East play on Dec. 27 at DePaul.

Temple: The Owls host another Philadelphia school, Drexel, on Saturday and then play at Georgia on Dec. 22 before starting American Conference play on Dec. 28 against Tulane. The Owls will be looking for their 33rd NCAA Tournament appearance and will need a high finish in the conference to get there.

UP NEXT

Villanova: After a break for exams, the Wildcats play Hofstra on Dec. 22 in Uniondale, New York.

Temple: Hosts Drexel on Saturday night.

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More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25

Louisville files lawsuit against former head coach Rick Pitino

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The University of Louisville has filed a lawsuit against former head coach Rick Pitino, seeking monetary damages, including money the school will lose from vacated NCAA tournament wins from 2012-2015.

According to a report from Jason Riley of WDRB, the school is claiming that since Pitino is the active wrongdoer and not the University. “To the extent the University is obligated to pay financial penalties to the NCAA, the University is entitled to indemnity from Mr. Pitino for the total amount of the penalties, if any, and any other resultant consequential damages, including the costs and attorneys’ fees associated with the compliance investigation and defense of this action,” the lawsuit read.

The university is also going after “any bonuses and other compensation wrongly paid” to Pitino, according to the suit.

This Louisville lawsuit runs counter to Pitino’s breach-of-contract suit that he filed in late November in which he claimed that he was owed more than $35 million left on his contract. Louisville dismissed Pitino “for cause” as the school has maintained that Pitino isn’t owed anything.

Based on the back-and-forth lawsuits, this sounds like it’s just getting started as we’ll likely hear a lot more from both sides in the coming months. Never shy to publicly respond to anything, it’ll be interesting if Pitino speaks or if he’s told to stay quiet until anything is required in court.

NCAA committee hears final Louisville appeal as they try to keep title banner

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Louisville had their final day in court on Wednesday as they made a last-ditch appeal to the NCAA Infractions Committee to try and save their 2012 Final Four and 2013 National Title.

Neither Rick Pitino nor Tom Jurich, who were both fired by Louisville in the wake of this fall’s FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball, were in attendance.

An interim president and interim athletic director were present for the University as they tried to push back against the ruling the NCAA came down with this summer. If you’ve forgotten: The Cardinals were hit with a slew of recruiting restrictions, sit on probation and must pay back a bunch of money they won in forfeited NCAA tournament games due to a former staffer’s efforts to provide strippers and sex workers to players and recruits over the course of four years. The vacated wins are the result of players that were retroactively ruled ineligible for receiving what the NCAA is deeming impermissible benefits participating in those games.

Louisville also initially self-imposed violations, including a 2016 postseason ban that was implemented in February of that year.

Jeff Greer of the Louisville Courier-Journal has all the details here, but we know what the story is at this point.

Louisville’s argument is centered around the money. Essentially, they are saying that value of the transactions in question – the amount of money that was spent by former assistant Andre McGee – was small enough that the players involved would have been able to pay back what was owed had the violations been discovered in real time. The NCAA’s argument is even simpler: We’ve never seen something like this, so precedence does not matter in this case.

A final ruling is not expected until at least January.