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Hispanic Heritage Month: Shabazz Napier’s NCAA Tourney Blitz

One of the best players to ever flash across the NCAA landscape, he used his platform and his voice to make a lasting impact on college hoops.

In the eyes of many, the 2014 NCAA Tournament was supposed to dominated by a select few squads.

Billy Donovan’s University of Florida team had gone undefeated in SEC play and earned March Madness’ No. 1 overall seed. Sean Miller’s Arizona Wildcats – with Brandon Ashley, Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Nick Johnson, Kaleb Tarczewski and T.J. McConnell – were good enough to possibly deliver the school’s first national championship in the post-Lute Olson era.

Wichita State had shocked the nation by going undefeated during the regular season thanks to the illmatic combo of Fred Van Vleet, Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker, and Virginia was also packing some heat with Justin Anderson, Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris.

Kansas, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Villanova, Duke and Michigan looked like national title contenders as well.

No one outside of Storrs, Connecticut was confident that UConn could run the table, but that’s exactly what they did behind the sensational point guard play of Shabazz Napier.

A native of the rugged Roxbury section of Boston, Napier’s mother, Carmen Velázquez, is from Puerto Rico. Before an injury kept him from the 2013 FIBA Americas Tournament, he’d been named to the Puerto Rican national squad.

Napier was a freshman on the Huskies squad that had previously won UConn’s third national championship when he backed up the inimitable New York City playground legend Kemba Walker. Three years later, he was ready to etch his own name into NCAA championship lore.

During the regular season, Shabazz averaged 17.4 points and nearly six rebounds and five assists per game. In the premiere season of the American Athletic Conference, he was unanimously selected for the All-AAC first team, and was named the conference Player of the Year. He was also a finalist for the prestigious Wooden, Bob Cousy and Naismith Awards, as well as the Oscar Robertson Trophy.

He led the Huskies to a 24-7 record and they wrapped up the regular season being ranked No. 21 in the AP Top 25.

After losing the AAC Tournament championship game to Louisville, who was ranked fifth in the country at the time, UConn earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament as the seventh seed in the East Regional.

In their opening round 89-81 win over St. Joe’s, Shabazz scorched for 24 points, eight rebounds, six assists and three steals. In a shocking 77-65 upset against No. 2 seed Villanova in the next round, he got busy to the tune of 25 points, five boards and three dimes.

In the Sweet 16 against Iowa State, he put up 19 points, five rebounds and five assists in the 81-76 victory. He was by far the most dominant player in the tourney up until that point and had garnered the attention of anyone watching, but most thought that UConn’s season would come to an end in the Elite Eight when they knuckled up against a powerful Michigan State squad that featured a great collection of players, headlined by Denzel Valentine, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne.

But Shabazz came rumbling through the function like the Toad, Lizard, Scorpion, Snake and the Centipede in “The Five Deadly Venoms“. He scored 25 points, snagged six boards and dished out four dimes to lead the Huskies to a 60-54 victory en route to being named the Most Outstanding Player of the East Regional.

After disposing of the tourney’s top overall seed, the Florida Gators, in the Final Four, Shabazz was ready for his one shining moment against Julius Randle, the Harrison twins, James Young, Alex Poythress and John Calipari’s always dangerous University of Kentucky crew.

In the 60-54 National Championship game upset victory against the favored Wildcats, ‘Bazz led all scorers with 22 points en route to being named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. He cemented his place in NCAA history in the process, as UConn became the second-lowest seed to ever win the big dance, after eighth-seeded Villanova in 1985.

He came out the gate blazing in that memorable title game performance, scoring 15 points in the first half alone. Overall, he shot 8-of-16 from the floor and knocked down four of his nine three-point attempts. He also pulled down six rebounds, handed out three assists and grabbed three steals.

And just as big as his dynamic performances throughout the tournament were the statements he made about the NCAA.

That championship game was played at AT&T Stadium, where 79,238 people paid an average of about $500 to watch the Final Four games from seats where they needed binoculars to see the action. It was broadcast on CBS, which paid about $800 million that year alone for the right to televise March Madness to an estimated audience of over 20 million. And given that as a backdrop, Shabazz spoke up about the NCAA’s hypocrisy.

He told reporters that he sometimes had gone to bed “starving” because he couldn’t afford food, despite UConn’s student-athlete guidelines including provisions for meal plans.

“He says he’s going to bed hungry at a time when millions of dollars are being made off of him. It’s obscene,” Connecticut State Rep. Matthew Lesser said. “This isn’t a Connecticut problem. This is an NCAA problem, and I want to make sure we’re putting pressure on them to treat athletes well.”

“…sometimes, like I said, there’s hungry nights and I’m not able to eat and I still got to play up to my capabilities,” Napier said. “… When you see your jersey getting sold… and things like that, you feel like you want something in return.”

His criticism of the NCAA was not simply limited to poor athletes sometimes not having money to eat. He also lit into the organization for its overall unfair treatment of athletes across the board.

In a 2015 article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Brad Wolverton wrote:

“Connecticut’s players, whose team had been held out of the tournament the previous season for failing to meet the NCAA’s academic standards, argued that the association’s academic policies were unfair and that its supposed focus on education was misaligned. Some players pointed out the irony of the NCAA’s touting of academics while describing how much class time they had missed for the tournament.

Days later Mr. Napier became a poster child for what he saw as another NCAA hypocrisy, telling reporters that, despite all the money sloshing around big-time college sports, there were some nights he went to bed hungry because colleges weren’t allowed to provide enough food for players.

Flash forward a year, and the NCAA has taken steps to change some of those perceptions. After the food controversy, the association passed new rules allowing athletics programs to offer players unlimited meals. Some institutions responded by upping their food budgets by more than $1 million.”

That was just the beginning. More players began to speak out and the NCAA system became more scrutinized and criticized. As of 2020, in an unprecedented NCAA Board of Governor’s ruling, college players can finally market themselves and make money off of their own likeness. 

Shabazz Napier left his mark on college basketball, both on and off the court.

He was one of the greatest point guards to ever flash across the NCAA landscape, and he used his platform and his voice to point out the organization’s inherent hypocrisy while initiating some small changes that hundreds of student-athletes benefit from today.

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