Shabazz Napier has America's attention.
Thanks to his impressive on-court performance and his inflammatory postgame declaration, the University of Connecticut point guard will be the face of the 2014 NCAA Tournament long after the fires are all put out in Storrs and Lexington. After leading the seventh-seeded UConn Huskies to an unlikely and historic triumph over Kentucky in the national championship game, the 22-year-old UConn playmaker used his one shining moment in the spotlight to take one last shot. Rather than aiming for the rims at AT&T Stadium, the sharpshooting senior set his sights on the NCAA.
"I want to get everybody's attention, right quick," Napier said to the record-setting crowd in North Texas after CBS' Jim Nantz asked him to describe his feelings about UConn's 60-54 win. "If I don't have your attention, let me get your attention. Ladies and gentlemen, you're looking at the Hungry Huskies. This is what happens when you ban us last year!"
Napier, a member of the 2011 UConn team that won the school's last men's basketball title, was referring to the Huskies' forced absence from 2013 NCAA Tournament for poor Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores. The Huskies were one of 10 programs banned from the 2013 postseason because their APR scores, a measures of classroom performance used by the NCAA, fell below the mandated four-year and two-year cutlines. UConn's 2013 postseason ban was determined using data from 2007-08 through 2010-11. For Napier and his "Hungry Huskies," the ban was a source of frustration and motivation.
"We hungry," Napier said during his formal postgame press conference on Monday night. "When you stop, when you prevent us from trying to go to the postseason, and it wasn't our fault, we worked since that day on. Coach [Kevin] Ollie told us, this is going to be a two‑year plan, and since that day on we believed."
A native of Roxbury, Mass., Napier generated headlines with his performances on and off the court as UConn navigated its unlikely path to the Final Four. Comments he made in March about athletes' access to meals on campus suggested that there was a literal meaning to the term "Hungry Huskies" that he would use as the confetti fell at AT&T Stadium on Monday night.
"We're definitely blessed to get scholarships to our universities, but at the end of the day, that doesn't cover everything," Napier told a group of reporters earlier during the NCAA Tournament when asked about efforts by Northwestern football players to unionize, adding later in that conversation, "I don't think student athletes should get hundreds of thousands of dollars, but ... there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I'm starving."
The night before his UConn team faced off against a talented but young Kentucky squad with a national championship on the line, Napier thought about what he would say if presented with a microphone during a trophy ceremony. Confident in his team's ability on the court, Napier wanted to be ready to seize the moment off the court as well.
"Like I said, man, I just wanted to grab everybody's attention and introduce the Hungry Huskies, because it's been two years," Napier told reporters. "It's quite funny because I was laying down and I was thinking of something to say, because I knew we were going to win. I'm being real humble and not trying to be cocky, when you believe something so much, you understand what may happen in certain situations. I told myself, if I was on that podium I was going to say that."
With a game-high 22 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals in 39 minutes on the floor in the win over Kentucky, Napier made sure that UConn made it to the podium. Once there, he made sure his words spoke at least as loud as his actions.