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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.”

VIDEO: Kentucky fans get married in the ticket line for Big Blue Madness

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Kentucky fans have unique ways of making their annual Big Blue Madness event the most chaotic tip-off event of the season. While Big Blue Nation is waiting in line for tickets to this year’s festivities in Tent City, one couple decided to go the extra mile.

After securing the first spot in line for tickets, Ray Branham and Vicki Harvey opted to get married. According to a post from Drew Franklin of Kentucky Sports Radio, the couple had already been talking about tying the knot, but decided to make the move once they had the top spot in line. As you can see by the wedding video, it was a very Kentucky-themed ceremony as the duo got married in front of friends and other Kentucky fans.

I can’t say I’m surprised two Kentucky fans decided to get married in line for something like Big Blue Madness and this (unplanned) wedding gives this year’s event something unique that we will always remember.

Penn State loses freshman on day practice starts

Patrick Chambers
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On the day that college basketball practice is to start, Penn State head coach Pat Chambers announced that his roster would be changing.

Joe Hampton, a 6-foot-8, 290 pound power forward from Maryland, will be leaving the program.

“Joe has made the decision to leave the program based on personal reasons,” Chambers said. “We wish him the best of luck with his future endeavors.”

Hampton was a three-star prospect that missed his senior season at Oak Hill Academy with torn ACL, but he reportedly enrolled at Penn State in May, before the rest of the Nittany Lion recruit class.

Michigan State lands second Class of 2017 commitment

CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 22:  Head coach Tom Izzo of the Michigan State Spartans reacts against the Virginia Cavaliers during the third round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Time Warner Cable Arena on March 22, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Tom Izzo landed his second commitment in the Class of 2017 as big man Xavier Tillman announced that he will be attending Michigan State.

A 6-foot-7, 235 pound power forward, Tillman is a physical-if-undersized player that is rated as a three-star prospect. He’s not a one-and-done player, but he’s should be a good program guy for the Spartans.

“Tillman is another big and strong interior presence for Michigan State,” said NBCSports.com recruiting analyst Scott Phillips. “What separates Tillman from a lot of big men his size is his passing ability. Tillman is an intelligent player on the offensive end and he rebounds his area well.”

Tillman joins Jaren Jackson, his AAU teammate for Speice Indy Heat, in Michigan State’s recruiting class.

He picked Michigan State over Purdue and Marquette.

PHOTO: Arizona’s Kobi Simmons puts his chin above the rim

TREVISO, ITALY - JUNE 06:  Kobi Simmons in action during adidas Euriocamp Day 1 at La Ghirada sports center on June 6, 2015 in Treviso, Italy.  (Photo by Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images)
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Kobi Simmons has some ridiculous hops.

How ridiculous?

Well, take a look at this tweet:

His vertical is … 45 inches? That’s pretty impressive, but not quite as impressive as the pictures that he tweeted out, the full effect of which you cannot receive until you see the picture in it’s entirety:

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1. Look how high he is off the court.

2. Look at where his hand is in relation to the top of the back board.

3. … LOOK AT HIS CHIN!

I know that the angle of this picture is probably playing some visual tricks on us, but think about how high you have to be able to jump just to have a camera visually trick someone’s eyes into thinking your chin is above the backboard.

The Perry Ellis All-Stars

Michigan guard Spike Albrecht (2) makes a layup between Northern Michigan forward Brett Branstrom, top left, and center Vejas Grazulis (52) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Michigan won 70-44. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
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Beginning in September and running up until November 11th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

You know the feeling. You’re flipping between games and stumble upon him. Maybe it’s a team you only rarely catch, or maybe it’s a conference foe you’ve watched play dozens of times over the last few years, but as you watch for a few moments, that’s when you see him. You could have sworn he graduated last year. Or even maybe the year before. But alas, there he is. That four-year starter. The dude who got a medical redshirt. A graduate transfer. It’s one of college basketball’s enduring and unique phenomena.

We present, to you, the Perry Ellis All-Stars.

PERRY ELLIS ALL-STARS, FIRST TEAM

MVP G Spike Albrecht, Purdue: After averaging just 2.2 points and 0.7 assists per game for Michigan as a freshman, Albrecht broke through with one of the most memorable NCAA tournament title game performances of all-time against Louisville, hitting four of five 3-pointers, scoring 17 points and letting loose one of the most epic heat checks of all-time.

Albrecht’s career was set to come to a close with the Wolverines last year, but recovery from hip surgery didn’t go as quickly as hoped and he sat out with a medical redshirt. That paved the way for an intra-conference graduate transfer to West Lafayette, where the 24-year-old will bolster the backcourt and make legions of fans wonder how the hell he’s still playing college basketball.

G Phil Forte, Oklahoma State: Once best known for simply being Marcus Smart’s best friend, Forte has grown into his own and become one of the top – and most enduring – players in the Big 12. He’s averaged double-figures in scoring in every season and was set to be the face of the Cowboys last year in his senior season, but a torn elbow ligament delayed that final season to this year, when he’ll try to help the Brad Underwood era get off the ground as a likely all-conference player. Not bad for an unranked Class of 2012 recruit who many thought had his high-major opportunity only because of his friendship with a future top ten pick.

G Bryce Alford, UCLA: Alford gets his spot on the first time because it feels like he’s been a major topic of conversation in hoops circles for a half-decade, even if it’s only been a little over two years. That’s what happens when you’re the shoot-happy son of the UCLA coach. He’s been a flashpoint for Bruins fans who have been less than thrilled with coach Steve Alford, given how much the offense – and shots – have gone through Bryce. With a monster freshman class coming to Westwood this season, Bryce’s role will be one of the more interesting subplots in college basketball this season.

F Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina: The Charlotte native arrived in Chapel Hill as a McDonald’s All-American with expectations as large as his 6-foot-9, 315-pound frame. He averaged just 16 minutes per game as a freshman, but a productive NCAA tournament and as offseason dominated by talk of all the weight he lost propelled those expectations. He averaged 11 points and 7 boards in 23 minutes per game as a sophomore, but saw his minutes and production drop as a junior. A career that some thought would be a quick one at North Carolina will now reach its four-year conclusion this season, with Meeks a topic of discussion for the Tar Heels each and every offseason he’s been in Chapel Hill.

F Amile Jefferson, Duke: Jefferson, another Class of 2012 recruit and McDonald’s All-American, returns for a fifth season with the Blue Devils due to a medical redshirt that was a product of a foot injury that cut Jefferson’s season last year short amid him putting up the best numbers of his career. It may turn out to be a blessing in disguise as he’s now part of a roster many have pegged as the best in the country, giving him a chance to pair another ring with the NCAA championship he won in 2015.

MORE: All-Americans | Impact Transfers | Expert Picks | Trending Programs

DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 13: Amile Jefferson #21 of the Duke Blue Devils during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 13, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Amile Jefferson (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

PERRY ELLIS ALL-STARS, SECOND TEAM

G Stevie Clark, Oakland: Best known for his arrest after police said he was urinating out of a moving car, Clark attended two junior colleges and has now resurfaced at Oakland with two years of eligibility remaining.

G Katin Reinhardt, Marquette: After stops at USC and UNLV, the one-time top-40 2012 recruit — the supposed second-coming of Jimmer Fredette — is finishing his career in Milwaukee.

G Rodney Purvis: He started his career at N.C. State, transferred to UConn and submitted his name for NBA draft consideration, but the former top 15 prospect is back for his fifth year of college ball.

F Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin: The Badger senior was both a reserve and a starter in Wisconsin’s back-to-back Final Four runs and became something of an internet sensation with his fascination with stenographers. He’s now become one of the faces of the Wisconsin program and an outspoken socially conscious voice.

F Alex Murphy, Northeastern: A potential McDonald’s All-American in the Class of 2012, he enrolled at Duke a year early only to redshirt the 2011-12 season. After a year and a half seeing limited bench minutes, he transferred to Florida where, in the second half of the 2014-15 season, he saw limited bench minutes. An injury kept him out last season and, after receiving a sixth-year of eligibility from the NCAA, will play at Northeastern this year.

C Przmek Karnowski, Gonzaga: The 7-foot-1 Poland native is the veteran of 113 career games, but only five came last year after a back injury forced him to take a medical redshirt.

YUP, THEY’RE STILL IN SCHOOL, TOO

Dajuan Coleman, Syracuse
Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin
London Perrantes, Virginia
Tracy Abrams, Illinois
Dylan Ennis, Oregon
Je’lon Hornbeak, Monmouth
Myles Davis, Xavier
Tyler Lewis, Butler