ARLINGTON, Texas — Late on Monday night in the Connecticut locker room, when security told the media it was time to go, several reporters who have covered UConn went up to Shabazz Napier's locker to tell him what a pleasure it was to cover him.
Napier is a rare breed in today's college game: a great player who stayed in school long enough to write a legacy that will live on for a long time.
His senior class is the first to win two titles in the history of the UConn program, and he's one of only 17 players to play and win two national championship games since John Wooden's UCLA dynasty ended. He is the only player in the last 40 years to lead a national champion in points, assists and rebounds.
And there he was Monday night on the podium with enough sense of his place and that of his team that he told the NCAA what it could do with its postseason ban. No matter how you feel about the NCAA and its academic standards, you had to respect Napier for taking a stand.
"They call us student athletes and they take us away from our school," he said. "But at the end of the day, we understand what we get ourselves into."
And we should understand that Napier means much more to the game than just the message he delivered.
We can celebrate Napier for staying, but really, he had no choice. I said before he was a rare breed, and he was, but it wasn't necessarily by his choosing. Listed at 6'1" (a generous listing), he was too small to leave early for the NBA and get drafted in the first round. He was smart enough to know that.
It is the Napiers of the world who use their four years to develop into much more than just a prospect whom the NCAA should put on billboards.
"I wish we'd all just embrace the kid that's a grinder for four years instead of making this huge thing about freshman stars," Michigan coach John Beilein said during the NCAA tournament. "Let's just watch. Let's reward the kid that really works hard just as much as the freshman stars."
The fact that a guy like Napier was punished does feel wrong. Napier is right that it wasn't his fault his school was on probation for low APR scores. But it was the fault of those players who came before him, the administrators at UConn and the coaching staff. They knew the rules; they didn't do enough to follow them.
It is more a culture problem—the race for players to get paid, or the fantasy land many college players live in where they believe they're about to get paid. Even the players who have little chance of making it often don't take college seriously because they believe they will eventually just go pro. That's what makes policies like the APR necessary.
The rule is not there for Napier, who said he is on pace to graduate and has developed his game enough that an NBA team will take a chance on him even with his height limitations.
"He's just a professional in everything that he does," teammate Tyler Olander said. "He eats well, he gets the proper amount of sleep, does all the right things on and off the court, attends class, does his schoolwork.
"It's all the little things, and he sets an example, just being great at everything you do. That's a leader. If you could do that, you don't really have to say anything or show emotion crazy like that."
It's almost ironic that Napier chose to take a stand, and that stand is what many in the college basketball world are talking about today.
Read that quote from Olander again. Napier is not the problem. If every guy could be like Napier, college basketball would not need APR scores.
What we should be talking about today is how great Napier was in that game and his place in the conversation of the greatest college point guards of all time.
I know I will not remember him for what he said in those moments after UConn's win. I will remember him as one of the baddest dudes I've ever seen play. From his shot in early December to beat Florida to the deep threes he buried on the national championship stage, he was one of the best shot-makers in pressure-packed moments ever to play the college game.
We did not know what to expect from the Kentucky freshmen on Monday night, and Julius Randle, UK's best player, was a relative no-show.
But almost every time Napier released a shot, we expected it to go in because had made a career out of burying those shots.
The result—UConn as a national champ—was a shocker. The dagger threes he made against the Wildcats, the disappearing act he did among the UK trees before a scoop shot in the lane on Monday—that was no surprise. He was so clever. He was so fearless.
And he matured into that bad man over the course of four years.
"Shabazz was Shabazz," Jim Calhoun said when told Napier pulled a Kemba Walker, who had a run just as memorable three years ago to the lead the Huskies to a title. "He controlled the game. It was his game."
Earlier this month, if you had polled many of us who covered the college game and asked us what we would remember about this year, it would be the miraculous season Doug McDermott had. His was one of the greatest individual performances over the course of a season in the history of the game.
But now, we'll remember McDermott, and we'll remember Napier. This is their season.
Napier's play in this NCAA tournament will never be forgotten. That will live on much longer than one-and-done debates or APR.
Hopefully, one day those issues will be resolved. It could take a while. It will take change. But today is not a day to think about that.
Today should be about celebrating Napier.
It's been an honor, Shabazz. For all of us.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.
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