ARLINGTON, Texas – Connecticut and Kentucky couldn’t have met in last year’s championship game and few people gave them a chance to be in this year’s.
Seventh-seeded Connecticut and eighth-seeded Kentucky meet tonight in one of the more unlikely NCAA championship games ever.
Neither was around in last year’s postseason – Connecticut because of a tournament ban over academic issues; Kentucky because it didn’t make the field. And neither looked like national title contenders at times this season.
Kentucky (29-10) and its outstanding freshmen went from preseason No. 1 to out of the rankings after some bad losses. And Connecticut (31-8) was not a popular postseason pick after finishing tied for third in the American Athletic Conference with multiple losses to Louisville and SMU.
In the tournament, the Huskies have stopped some of the country’s top guards and put themselves in position for their fourth national championship, the previous three under Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun.
“Hopefully we have an opportunity to fall back on our defense,” second-year coach Kevin Ollie said. “We have been doing that the whole year.”
If Kentucky has a chance to win in the final minute, that defense better pay attention to guard Aaron Harrison, one of five freshmen starters.
He has hit huge three-pointers in the Wildcats’ last three games. Harrison rattled in a 26-footer with 5.7 seconds to go in the 74-73 win against Wisconsin in the semifinals. He made almost the exact same shot with 2.3 seconds to go against Michigan for a 75-72 win that sent the Wildcats to the Final Four. Against Louisville, he hit a three with 39 seconds remaining to give Kentucky the lead for good in a 74-69 win.
“The biggest thing is he’s not afraid to miss,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “He’s OK with it. He’s comfortable in his own skin. ... If you’re going to make those kind of shots, you absolutely cannot be afraid to miss them.”
These two programs have combined to win six of the last 18 NCAA titles.
“Playing against Connecticut, I mean, I’m just happy we’re still playing,” Calipari said.
Neither program could say that last year.
Connecticut was banned from the postseason after failing to meet NCAA academic standard. It had practice limitations and lost a scholarship. The players could have transferred but didn’t. The Huskies finished 20-10 in Ollie’s first year. They took the hit and made it back to the biggest stage.
“It’s actually very impressive,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said Sunday. “To see that team hold together, I think it’s a commitment to those young men on that team that hung together.”
The leader of the group is All-American Shabazz Napier, who leads the team in almost every statistical category. He’s the guy who makes the big shot or big pass. Fellow guard Ryan Boatright has taken some of the spotlight recently for his defensive performances against the likes of Keith Appling of Michigan State and Scottie Wilbekin of Florida.
“Defense is the biggest thing for me. The points will come,” Boatright said. “I want to make him uncomfortable, don’t let him get in a rhythm or flow. Their guards, God blessed them with height and they will try to take advantage of smaller guys like us but I’ve been the smaller guy my whole life and I’ve never backed down.”
Kentucky is playing its best basketball lately, led by big man Julius Randle and the Harrison twins.
“We just had too much talent and we saw in spurts how good we could be,” Randle said, “so it just felt like it was a matter of time before it clicked.”
This is Calipari’s fourth Final Four, but the first two – Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008 – were vacated because of NCAA rules violations.
Now the Wildcats are on an 11-game winning streak in the NCAA Tournament and they are one win from a ninth national championship for Kentucky.
“We all play the game of basketball to compete against the best,” Napier said. “This is one of them games. ... They worked hard to get to this point and we did too. We’re going to do our best to get this ‘W.’”