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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.”

Weekend Preview: First place in the Pac-12, SEC on the line

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17:  Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins brings the ball up the court against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. UCLA won 86-73.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Betting lines won’t be released until later tonight, so our predictions will be based on KenPom’s projected spread. It usually ends up being pretty close to Vegas’ lines.

SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 14 Arizona at No. 3 UCLA, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (CBS): First place in the Pac-12 is on the line on Saturday when Arizona makes the trek to Pauley Pavilion to square off with UCLA. The Bruins, who many believe are actually the best team in college basketball, currently sit a game behind both Arizona and Oregon – who may or may not have just lost Dillon Brooks to another foot injury – in the Pac-12 race, and this will be their chance to close the gap on at least one of those two.

Arizona is an interesting team. On paper, this team has some serious question. As talented as Lauri Markkanen, Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons are, and as good as that 17-2 record looks, the Wildcats still really haven’t done anything this season that would make you believe they are the No. 14 team in the country. Their best win is either Michigan State, who is not the Michigan State we thought they were going to be entering the season, or USC on the road.

UCLA, on the other hand, has an offense that is capable of putting up more than 100 points on anyone. They made 19 threes at Colorado. They made 16 threes against Arizona State on Thursday night, knocking down 10-of-13 in the first half. They’ve had two different players go for more than 30 points in Pac-12 play, and neither of them are Lonzo Ball or T.J. Leaf, UCLA’s two lottery picks. UCLA’s issue is that they don’t defend. As dangerous as this team is, they’re currently sitting at 11th in KenPom because they rank 92nd in defensive efficiency, and while I have my doubts about the Wildcats, they do have three guys that can light it up offensively.

  • PREDICTION: UCLA (-4) is where I would want my money, and I think that this game will hit over (+/- 162), too.

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No. 24 South Carolina at No. 5 Kentucky, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN): The Pac-12 isn’t the only conference where first-place is on the line. South Carolina and Kentucky are the only two undefeated teams left in the league after the Gamecocks beat No. 19 Florida on Wednesday night, and we will get a chance to see the pair of them square off Saturday evening. I think that South Carolina is the second-best team in the SEC, and I think that they do have the pieces to give the Wildcats a fight. It’s worth noting that with Sindarius Thornwell available, South Carolina is undefeated on the season.

Frank Martin’s clubs are never going to get out-toughed, and that is particularly true with this group, whose roster of big, physical veterans have used a pressuring, half-court man defense to sit atop KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. It will be strength on strength for South Carolina, as Kentucky has the nation’s No. 2 offense.

The key? Keep the Wildcats out of transition. Given the lack of perimeter shooting on Kentucky’s roster, if South Carolina can find a way to avoid live-ball turnovers and prevent Kentucky from getting easy buckets on the break – for what it’s worth, no one has really been able to do this – they should be able to keep this game interesting.

The x-factor? Foul trouble. The style that both of these teams like to play does not exactly align with the way college basketball is being officiated this season.

  • PREDICTION: I think Kentucky wins this, but I think the nation’s best defensive team will be able to avoid getting run off the floor, so I’ll take South Carolina (+13).

RELATEDFive Storylines To Follow This Weekend

No. 12 Louisville at No. 10 Florida State, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN): Florida State is part of a three-way tie for first place in the ACC with Notre Dame and North Carolina after the Seminoles knocked off the Fighting Irish on Wednesday evening. The way Leonard Hamilton’s club got that done was to pressure the Irish in the half court and force them to make mistakes offensively. Notre Dame had to shoot 15-for-21 from three to keep that thing respectable.

Louisville is going to face similar issues offensively as well. Already a team with question marks on that end of the floor, they are going to be playing this game without the services of Quentin Snider, who is dealing with a hip flexor injury. Donovan Mitchell looked good against Clemson on Thursday night, but Clemson and Florida State are two different beasts.

It’s worth noting, however that the ‘Noles have point guard issues as well. Xavier Rathan-Mayes isn’t exactly Chris Paul, and Louisville currently has the nation’s second-best defense.

  • PREDICTION: I don’t think Louisville wins this game on the road without their point guard, so I’m on Florida State (-1). But the best I really like is under (+/- 147). Two tough defenses, two teams without point guards.
LOUISVILLE, KY - JANUARY 11: Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Louisville Cardinals shoots the ball during the game against the Pittsburgh Panthers at KFC YUM! Center on January 11, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Donovan Mitchell (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

FIVE MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • Syracuse at No. 15 Notre Dame, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ESPN): The Irish are coming off of their first loss of the season, falling at Florida State despite the fact that they shot 15-for-21 from three. Given the way that Notre Dame can shoot the ball and pass the ball, this may not be the best matchup for the Orange zone. PREDICTION: Syracuse (+10)
  • Georgia Tech at No. 16 Virginia, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ACC Network): If you haven’t noticed yet, Josh Pastner actually have Georgia Tech playing some good basketball. The Yellow Jackets have wins over North Carolina, Clemson and N.C. State. Their only losses? At Duke, at Louisville and at Virginia Tech. PREDICTION: Virginia (-16)
  • No. 17 Wisconsin at Minnesota, Sat. 4:30 p.m. (BTN): The Golden Gophers got off to a good start to the season, but in the last week they’ve lost at Michigan State and at Penn State. Richard Pitino’s club, if they are going to be a tournament team, needs to land a couple more wins over the top teams from the Big Ten. This is the perfect opportunity. PREDICTION: Wisconsin (-2)
  • No. 7 West Virginia at Kansas State, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN2): The Wildcats have been on the wrong end of three tough losses already this season. If they are going to have a real chance to get to the NCAA tournament this is the kind of game they need to win. PREDICTION: Kansas State (+3)
  • No. 6 Baylor at TCU, Sat. 8:00 p.m. (ESPNU): TCU is sitting pretty with a 14-4 record, but the Horned Frogs really have beaten anyone yet this season. Two wins over Washington, UNLV, Iowa State, Oklahoma. If this program is going to be good instead of, “Hey, TCU isn’t a guaranteed win anymore,” they need to do things like beat the best teams in the conference at home. That would be Baylor. PREDICTION: Baylor (-2)

Karnowski leads No. 4 Gonzaga past Santa Clara 88-57

Gonzaga forward Zach Collins (32) drives past Santa Clara center Tony Lewis (35) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Coming off a big win in a showdown with rival Saint Mary’s, No. 4 Gonzaga could have been in for a bit of a letdown.

Seeing another frenzied crowd hoping for an upset was more than enough to keep the Bulldogs on their game.

Przemek Karnowski scored 19 points on just seven shots from the field and Gonzaga remained the only undefeated team in Division I with an 88-57 victory over Santa Clara on Thursday night.

“I’ve been here for five years and basically wherever you go it’s the biggest game of the season, in the conference at least,” Karnowski said. “We have to be prepared for that. Their crowd was really into it. We came out focused and I liked our intensity.”

Karnowski made six shots against the undersized Broncos and added seven more points from the free throw line to help the Bulldogs (18-0, 6-0 West Coast Conference) extend the best start in school history with another lopsided win.

Zach Collins had 16 points and Nigel Williams-Goss added 11 points and 10 rebounds in Gonzaga’s 11th straight double-digit win.

“Every game they come out ready to go,” coach Mark Few said. “They come out with energy, effort, and attention to detail has been really good. They’re a mature group.”

Jared Brownridge scored 23 points to lead the Broncos (10-10, 4-3) but got little help from his teammates as Santa Clara dropped its 13th straight to Gonzaga and 37th in the past 39 meetings.

“We just were stagnant on the offensive end – it had everything to do with us,” Brownridge said. “They’re a great team, there’s no argument about it. Tonight’s game had to do with us.”

Gonzaga scored 13 straight points midway through the first half to open a 20-point lead and never looked back as Santa Clara struggled to get open shots and couldn’t keep the Bulldogs out of the paint.

Brownridge keyed a 15-5 run early in the second half that cut a 21-point lead to 11 but the Bulldogs quickly built the lead back to 20 and coasted to the win.

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: After easily passing their first true test in conference play with a 23-point win over then-No. 21 Saint Mary’s on Saturday, the Bulldogs avoided a letdown by building the big early lead. There don’t figure to be many tough tests the rest of the regular season outside of a return trip to Saint Mary’s next month so the main task for Gonzaga will be to maintain their intensity before for the tournaments in March.

Santa Clara: The Broncos came into the game having won four of five but it was a different level of competition this game. They missed 14 of their first 18 shots – with six air balls – and never had a chance at the upset. They struggled to get any consistent offense outside of Brownridge and were overmatched inside in coach Herb Sendek’s first game against the class of the WCC.

DEFENDING BROWNRIDGE

Brownridge moved into seventh place on the WCC all-time scoring list with 2,079 points, jumping ahead of Loyola Marymount’s Forrest McKenzie. He made six 3-pointers but Few was happy with the overall defensive effort.

“Brownridge is an unbelievable player and he’s unbelievably gifted coming off those pin-downs and finding his shots,” Few said. “I thought we did a nice job, mixed up the coverages and made it hard, not just on him, but everyone else.”

LIVING AT THE LINE

Santa Clara committed six fouls in the first 4:13 of the second half and Gonzaga lived at the free throw line from there. The Bulldogs shot 18 for 23 from the line in the second half as they repeatedly fed Karnowski and Collins inside.

“They were in the double bonus early in the second half so we tried to take advantage of that and tried to go inside and pin fouls on them,” Karnowski said.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

A lopsided win over an overmatched opponent should do little to change the ranking for the Bulldogs in the AP poll .

UP NEXT

Gonzaga: Hosts Portland on Saturday.

Santa Clara: Hosts Loyola Marymount on Saturday.

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

No. 3 UCLA routs Arizona State 102-80 behind 3-point barrage

UCLA guard Bryce Alford (20) goes to the basket between Arizona State's Ramon Vila (33) and Kodi Justice during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Los Angeles, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017. UCLA won 102-80. (AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker)
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LOS ANGELES (AP) Like any shooter in a slump, Isaac Hamilton just kept putting the ball up, figuring it would eventually go in.

Did it ever.

The senior guard scored 33 points – three off his career best – and hit a career-high nine 3-pointers to help No. 3 UCLA rout Arizona State 102-80 on Thursday night.

The Bruins improved to 11-0 at home.

The performance left Hamilton speechless. He cut his tongue in the game and needed stitches afterward, leaving him unavailable to talk to media.

“He’s back,” guard Lonzo Ball said. “I like playing with him like that.”

The Bruins (19-1, 6-1 Pac-12) made 16 3-pointers and shot 60 percent from the field.

Last year if Hamilton wasn’t hitting, the Bruins found it hard to recover on their way to a losing season.

Now, the team is loaded with offensive threats who can pick up the slack for him.

“He gained a lot of confidence in that and he got it rolling,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said. “The guys did a good job of finding him. That’s what makes us hard to guard. We can make shots a variety of different ways.”

The Bruins led by 25 points in the first half and were up by 16 early in the second before the Sun Devils (9-10, 2-4) got within single digits in the matchup of the league’s top two scoring and 3-point shooting teams.

“We started slow but fought back,” said Torian Graham, who led Arizona State with 26 points. “We overcame adversity and I think we showed we can play with anybody. After we cut it to seven, we didn’t get stops and they got a lot of open looks. They’re very good in transition and that was the difference.”

TJ Leaf added 19 points and nine rebounds, and Ball had 10 points and 12 assists for the Bruins.

“It’s always good to see Isaac shoot well,” said Aaron Holiday, who added 13 points. “That’s a big part of his game and I’m glad he finally got it going.”

Tra Holder tied his career-high with 22 points for Arizona State, which has lost seven straight road games to UCLA. The Sun Devils hit 11 3-pointers, including six by Graham.

Graham scored 10 of Arizona State’s first 22 points in the second half to close to 68-61.

The Bruins’ offense kicked in and they ran off 14 straight points to go up 82-61. Holiday scored eight points, including two 3-pointers, in the spurt.

“It was cool to come back on them, but I didn’t get the result I wanted,” Holder said. “We gave up too many easy baskets. They are a fast team and they score before you know it. The game should not have ended like it did. We cut it to seven, but then they went to a zone and we got all discombobulated.”

The Sun Devils dropped their third straight and fourth in five games.

BIG PICTURE

Arizona St.: The Sun Devils play at Southern California before returning home to face the Washington schools. After that, they have a road game against No. 11 Oregon and will face the Bruins once more in February.

UCLA: The Bruins again built a big lead only to see it dwindle to single digits, a habit that has dogged them at times this season. “We got to start picking things up and stop having those 10 minutes where we don’t do too much,” Ball said.

TIDBITS

Arizona St.: Holder joined the 1,000-point club with 1,005 in his first three years.

UCLA: The Bruins had 30 assists for the first time since Feb. 23, 1995, when they had 32 in a win over California. … They have six players averaging double-figure scoring. … UCLA’s 19-1 start is its best since going 21-1 to begin the 1991-92 season.

UP NEXT

Arizona St.: Visits Southern California on Sunday to end a stretch of playing five of its first seven Pac-12 games on the road.

UCLA: Hosts No. 14 Arizona on Saturday in game featuring the Bruins’ No. 1 offense in the Pac-12 against the Wildcats’ No. 1 defense.

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

Donovan Mitchell leads No. 12 Louisville past Clemson

LOUISVILLE, KY - JANUARY 11:  Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Louisville Cardinals shoots the ball during the game against the Pittsburgh Panthers at KFC YUM! Center on January 11, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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No. 12 Louisville played their first game without Quentin Snider of Thursday night and it looked like they should play every game without Quentin Snider.

The Cardinals shook off an early nine-point deficit with a 29-10 run to close the first, eventually pounding Clemson into submission in a 92-60 win in the Yum! Center.

Donovan Mitchell led the way for the Cardinals, scoring all 18 of his points in the first half. Deng Adel added 18 points of is own while VJ King, who started in place of the injured Snider, finished with 14, the most he’s scored in ACC play. Perhaps more importantly, that trio finished 7-for-15 from beyond the arc in the win.

Perimeter scoring and perimeter shooting has been an issue for the Cardinals all season long. King is the only one of Louisville’s top five perimeter options that shoots better than 38 percent from the floor, and without Snider available, he’s the only one that shoots better than 34 percent from three. Snider is also the team’s sole point guard, and there were real concern about how this team was going to perform without him.

On Thursday, they did just fine.

Saturday will be a different story.

The Cardinals will square off with No. 10 Florida State, who just forced 18 turnovers against Notre Dame on Tuesday. The Irish are seventh-nationally in protecting the ball, meaning that we are going to get a much better feel for whether or not those point guard issues are real.

No. 11 Oregon blows by Cal, but Dillon Brooks leaves with “lower left leg injury”

Oregon Ducks forward Dillon Brooks (24), collides in the first half against California in an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Eugene, Ore. Brooks later left the game with an injury on a different play. (AP Photo/Thomas Boyd)
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Oregon defeated Cal on Thursday. The score was 86-63. That hardly matters, though, considering what else occurred in Eugene.

Ducks star Dillon Brooks left the game with a “lower left leg injury,” which is particularly ominous considering it was a surgically repaired left foot that sidelined Brooks all summer and kept him from joining Oregon on the floor until mid-November.

As of Thursday evening, there was no specific clarification, leaving only questions not only about Brooks’ health but what Oregon will have to potentially do without him.

The Ducks can win without Brooks. They went 8-1 before Brooks ever logged 30 minutes in a game and blasted Washington State in Pullman when Brooks got ejected after just seven minutes. They didn’t need him to dismantle the Bears, shooting 58 percent from the floor for the game and 54.2 percent without him in the second half. Jordan Bell made 11 of 12 shots for a career-best 26 points, and three other Ducks scored in double figures.

It wouldn’t be ideal, but Oregon could tread water to a high seed with him missing a chunk of time as they’ve shown at different times throughout this season. The Ducks only have one matchup left with both UCLA and Arizona, coming back-to-back in the first week of February.

But if it’s a serious injury, it necessitates a recalibration of expectation for Oregon.

Brooks scored 23 and had the game-winner as the Ducks handled No. 3 UCLA its lone loss this season and had 28 points when they blew out then-No. 22 USC to end December. Brooks is too talented, too versatile and too important for a prolonged absence to be meaningfully weathered. The NCAA tournament just too often demands too much from teams to be without a player of Brooks’ caliber.

For Oregon to reach the heights that many predicted for it since last spring, Brooks has to be on the floor.

The wait for the diagnosis and prognosis, not just for Brooks but for Oregon’s season, is on.