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.”

Wednesday’s Things to Know: No. 24 Houston stays unbeaten, Louisville escapes, DePaul and Chicago State get testy

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Wednesday night in college basketball saw a slow one thanks to finals weeks and winter breaks. Only two ranked teams played and a lot of teams had buy games. But there were still some things to learn on the night — including perhaps the American’s best team early this season. 

No. 24 Houston earns impressive comeback win over LSU

Houston stayed unbeaten while extending its home win streak to 22 games as they came back from double digits to knock off LSU for an 82-76 win.

The Cougars moved to 9-0 on the season thanks to a balanced effort as they won despite Corey Davis Jr. (eight points) battling foul trouble. Galen Robinson Jr. paced Houston with 18 points while Armoni Brooks and Cedrick Alley Jr. finished with 13 points each. Houston’s defense also did a great job of limiting LSU star guard Tremont Waters to 10 points on 3-for-13 shooting as he couldn’t get it going.

At this point in the season, you could argue that the Cougars are the best team in the American. Fresh off of last season’s NCAA tournament appearance, Houston is unbeaten with wins over Oregon, on the road at Oklahoma State, and now a comeback win over LSU. None of those three wins are against elite opponents, but they’re the type of wins Houston needed to give itself a more likely chance at an at-large bid.

Now, as long as Houston doesn’t bottom-out in the American, they should be in contention for another NCAA appearance after an impressive start.

Louisville holds off Lipscomb

Although Wednesday didn’t have a lot of ranked teams playing, Louisville received a serious test when they hosted Atlantic Sun favorite Lipscomb. The Cardinals didn’t play their best game, but still managed to pull together a 72-68 win.

Jordan Nwora paced the Cardinals with a game-high 22 points while Dwayne Sutton (14 points, nine rebounds) and Malik Williams (10 points, 12 rebounds) were also productive in the win. While Louisville still needs more quality wins to make the NCAA tournament, this is the type of victory that could come in handy. Lipscomb could be a potentially dangerous mid-major team with solid computer numbers, so this is a decent win for the Cardinals.

Things get heated in Chicago

The end of a DePaul blowout win over Chicago State got interesting on Wednesday night. With the Blue Demons ahead by 40ish points, head coach Dave Leitao exchanged words with Delshon Strickland.

Benches somewhat cleared, both coaches were ejected, and the game ended in somewhat surreal fashion with both teams refusing a postgame handshake.

No. 11 Texas Tech goes up big at half, beats NW State 79-44

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Jarrett Culver scored 15 points, Tariq Owens had 14 points and eight rebounds and No. 11 Texas Tech ran out to a 43-point halftime lead in a 79-44 victory over Northwestern State on Wednesday night.

The Red Raiders (9-0) matched their best start since 2008-09. All of the wins have been by double digits, and they had a 10-point lead less than five minutes into this rout.

Coming off a six-day break for final exams, Texas Tech relied on a defense that ranks among the best in the country against the offensively challenged Demons (2-8).

C.J. Jones scored 11 points for Northwestern State, which shot 15 percent (4 of 27) in the first half and trailed 53-10 at halftime. The Demons warmed up a bit after halftime, outscoring the Red Raiders 34-26 while shooting 35 percent.

Matt Mooney made all three of his 3-pointers within the first six minutes and scored 11 points along with Deshawn Corprew. Mooney was 3 of 4 from long range as the Red Raiders matched a season high with 10 3s on 23 attempts.

Culver had six rebounds and five assists, and Davide Moretti led the Red Raiders with seven assists while scoring seven points.

Northwestern State had 14 of its 19 turnovers before halftime, and Texas Tech scored 17 points off turnovers in the first half.

BIG PICTURE

Northwestern State: The Demons had two scoring droughts of six-plus minutes in the first half. One of the bright spots in the second half was freshman Dalin Williams, who grew up not too far north of Lubbock in the Texas Panhandle. He scored nine points.

Texas Tech: The first half was as well as the Red Raiders have played. But they sputtered some in the second half, a trend they will have to stop with a schedule that includes Duke in New York City as a tuneup for the rugged Big 12 season.

UP NEXT

Northwestern State: After seven road games in their first 10, the Demons play Southern-Shreveport on Saturday in the first of three home games before the start of Southland Conference play.

Texas Tech: The Red Raiders play a final game in their old home arena of Lubbock Municipal Coliseum on Saturday against Abilene Christian. It’s the second straight year of a “throwback” game. Texas Tech’s home from 1956-99 will shut down for good next summer.

San Diego State’s Jalen McDaniels sued for allegedly filming, sharing sex videos

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San Diego State sophomore forward Jalen McDaniels has been sued in Washington civil court for allegedly filming a sexual act with a female high school classmate and sharing the video with friends.

The act allegedly occurred in 2016 while the two were seniors at Federal Way High School outside of Tacoma. A different women will also allegedly be filing a similar lawsuit against McDaniels next week using the same attorney.

According to a report from Mark Zeigler of the San Diego Union-Tribune, Federal Way police investigated the cases twice, once in 2016 and again in fall 2018, but only last month recommended two counts of voyeurism against McDaniels. The King County prosecutor declined to press charges, so the civil lawsuits appear to be the next step.

Filing attorney Joan Mell had her clients hold a news conference on Wednesday afternoon to announce the civil suit — naming McDaniels directly for the first time. Previous allegations in October and November only identified a star basketball player from Federal Way’s 2016 team, but not McDaniels directly.

The suit is asking for damages  for severe emotional distress past and future.” According to Zeigler, it does not list specific monetary amounts.

“Jalen needs to figure out that women matter,” said Mell, the attorney for the two women. “It’s not about the money. If his paycheck to these women is 5 cents and he has to own the fact that it was wrong, good for him. Because that’s what needs to be heard. He needs to acknowledge that you cannot do that, and no other woman should be vulnerable or victimized by Jalen McDaniels.

“If he says he recognizes that’s wrong, he’s going to get the benefit of not dragging everybody through a long, extended process and the damages are going to be a whole lot less.”

San Diego State has released a statement saying that McDaniels will play on Wednesday night, even as McDaniels goes through an ugly case in public. The sophomore is an NBA Draft prospect as he’s putting up 14.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game for the Aztecs.

Report: NCAA rule limits high school event access in new June period

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The NCAA added two live period weekends in June as an opportunity for college coaches to watch elite recruits play with their high school teams. Designed to give colleges more access with scholastic ball instead of grassroots, the events appear to have some serious limitations with which players might be able to be seen.

According to a report from ESPN’s Jeff Borzello, the new June period will only allow for college coaches to support NFHS-sanctioned events — which also includes only one association per state. This limits a lot of states, including private schools in New York, elite national high schools like Oak Hill and La Lumiere, and the elite prep school circuit in the Northeast.

“There is only one member [association] in each state that has NFHS membership,” NFHS director of sports and officials Theresia D. Wynns said to ESPN via email. “Only the schools that are a part of the members of that NFHS member can participate in the June evaluation period.”

This theoretically limits exposure opportunities for a number of prospects. The new rule also allows for a lot of problems to potentially arise. What if recruits jump to a scholastic program to play for the summer, only to transfer to another program before the school year begins?

Also, many states are set up to properly play events together during the month of June? Once the rules were initiated, some states were fine because their calendars align with how the NCAA set things up. Others will be trying to adjust or won’t have good events for their players.

It makes for an intriguing first June period coming up this year, as we’ll have to see if any changes get made before then. There will be a lot of new wrinkles to get used to for these events.

DeSean Murray leaves Western Kentucky to turn pro

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Western Kentucky announced on Wednesday morning that DeSean Murray, a graduate transfer from Auburn, has left the program “to pursue professional opportunities.”

Murray is a 6-foot-4 forward that began his playing career at Presbyterian. He transferred to Auburn after the 2015-16 season and averaged 10.1 points for the Tigers last year. He was averaging 9.5 points in just over 20 minutes for the Hilltoppers this year, although he had a scoreless 11 minutes in their win at Arkansas over the weekend.

This coincided with Marek Nelson moving into the starting lineup, playing 27 minutes and scoring the game-winning bucket with 21 seconds left in the game.