Apr 8, 2014, 1:20 AM EST
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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
Nov 27, 2014, 3:14 AM EST
A lot is riding on this season for St. John’s. Can they consistently be the ‘grown up’ team they claimed to be on Wednesday night?
Nov 27, 2014, 3:07 AM EST
Two Big East teams made statements in the Bahamas, and No. 3 Arizona won the Maui Invitational.
Nov 27, 2014, 2:07 AM EST
Arizona scored 22 points off of 14 San Diego State turnovers, and that along with good foul shooting proved to be the difference.
Nov 27, 2014, 12:56 AM EST
Georgetown committed 19 turnovers, but they shot 49 percent from the field and earned another quality win for the Big East.
Nov 26, 2014, 10:22 PM EST
Through five games Louisville is shooting 24-for-105 from three. They’ll need to shoot better than that when Ohio State visits next Tuesday.
Nov 26, 2014, 9:11 PM EST
Sir’Dominic Pointer picked off Minnesota center Elliot Eliason’s outlet pass and made the big man pay for his mistake.
Nov 26, 2014, 8:05 PM EST
Justin Reed was one of America East’s best guards in each of his first two seasons, but that hasn’t been the case in 2014-15.
Nov 26, 2014, 6:42 PM EST
After launching 22 three-pointers in the first half, Oklahoma took a wiser approach to the offensive end of the floor as they outlasted No. 22 UCLA.
Nov 26, 2014, 5:29 PM EST
It’s hard to put too much stake in one loss, but there are a couple of things from this game that we need to keep an eye on.
Nov 26, 2014, 5:24 PM EST
Cameron Biedscheid averaged 6.2 points per game as a freshman at Notre Dame in 2012-13.
Nov 26, 2014, 4:37 PM EST
Joining Cullen Neal on the sideline is Arthur Edwards, who is expected to miss 4-6 weeks thanks to a dislocated finger.
Nov 26, 2014, 3:51 PM EST
The importance of this win for Butler cannot be overstated.
Nov 26, 2014, 3:19 PM EST
JayVaughn Pinkston is the leader and go-to guy for Villanova. And he is not their star because … why?
Nov 26, 2014, 12:02 PM EST
Gordon is averaging 10.5 points this season.
Nov 26, 2014, 11:20 AM EST
Not a bad way to kick off the Thanksgiving weekend
Nov 26, 2014, 9:00 AM EST
He was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault.
Nov 26, 2014, 7:00 AM EST
Angry John Beilein is the best John Beilein.
Nov 26, 2014, 12:28 AM EST
Pinkston made a couple of huge plays down the stretch.
Nov 26, 2014, 12:10 AM EST
Another busy night of college hoops as the Maui semifinals wrap up and Arkansas gets a statement road win.
Nov 25, 2014, 11:50 PM EST
Maryland pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the young season as they outplayed No. 13 Iowa State for much of the game in front of a pro-Cyclone crowd in Kansas City.
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