Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 6, 2014

Two Familiar Teams In Unfamiliar Role Of Longshot

Certainly no one is going to mistake either the UConn or Kentucky men’s basketball teams for Butler or Wichita State. Neither the Huskies nor the Wildcats are some longshot Cinderella from a mid-major conference, like VCU or George Mason in recent years. Both schools have been basketball powers for a long time, Connecticut as one of the founding members of the old Big East and Kentucky back to the days of the legendary coach Adolph Rupp. UConn has won three titles, most recently in 2011, and Kentucky’s eight championships are second only to UCLA; with the Wildcats latest title coming just two years ago.

Despite that history, in a Division I tournament characterized by its predictability, the fact that these two teams will vie for the title Monday night will be marketed by the NCAA and CBS as a major upset. To be sure, neither team entered the tournament as one of the favorites. Led by second year head coach Kevin Ollie, Connecticut returned to the tournament after a year of ineligibility as punishment for years of abysmal Academic Progress Rate rankings under former coach Jim Calhoun. Picked to finish second, the Huskies wound up in a three-way tie for third place in the inaugural season of the American Athletic Conference. They rolled through the non-conference portion of the schedule in November and December, compiling a 9-1 record that included a two point victory over then #15 Florida in early December. That was the last game the Gators would lose until the two teams met again in the national semifinals Saturday.

But UConn then lost its first two conference games against Houston and SMU, and after being ranked as high as 10th in the nation the Huskies dropped out of the Top 25 in early January. They finished the regular season with a 12-6 conference mark and 24-7 overall, but with just a middling 4-3 record against nationally ranked opponents. Still they had managed to climb back into the polls, and in the AAC Conference tournament they crushed #19 Memphis and edged #13 Cincinnati, before losing the championship game to #5 Louisville 71-61. It was the Huskies’ third loss of the season to the Cardinals, all by double-digits.

That on-again off-again season earned Connecticut a #7 seed in the East, and as soon as the Madness began the Huskies picked the best possible time to start playing their best basketball of the year. After opening with an eight point victory over #10 St. Joseph’s, UConn won four straight games over higher seeded opponents. The last of those, Saturday’s triumph against overall #1 seed Florida was easily the most impressive UConn win to date.

Florida jumped out to a 16-4 lead, and as his players gathered around him during a timeout coach Ollie reached for his whiteboard; but instead of diagramming a play he scrawled three words, “Even now, faith.” With faith in each other and in a suffocating defense, the Huskies ate into Florida’s lead. By halftime UConn had edged in front, 25-22. While the lead remained narrow for much of the final twenty minutes, Connecticut never again trailed. With just under seven minutes remaining star guard Shabazz Napier stripped the ball from Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin and fed his fellow backcourt starter Ryan Boatwright for a layup that put the Huskies up 47-40. The poised Huskies made 9 of their final 10 shots from the field and 8 of their last 10 free throws on their way to a 63-53 victory. For the Gators, there is only the bitter knowledge that just like the three previous teams with at least 30 consecutive wins to come to the Final Four, they exited without the championship.

UConn became just the third team seeded 7th or lower to reach the championship game since 1985. A couple of hours later Kentucky, the #8 seed in the Midwest, became the fourth. Kentucky coach John Calipari claims to dislike the section of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement that requires players to be at least one year out of high school before declaring for the draft; but no coach in the country can match his skill at recruiting and quickly melding into a cohesive unit teenage basketball prodigies. One can lament the number of “one and done” players who make their ever so brief appearances in collegiate uniforms before turning pro; but then one can also pine for the days when the national championship game of an arena sport was played in an arena rather than a cavernous football stadium.

Calipari took responsibility for the weak regular season finish by his latest batch of freshmen. Ranked #1 in the preseason poll on the strength of Calipari’s recruiting Kentucky lost four of its final seven contests, dropping out of the AP Top 25 in the process. The head coach blamed himself for over-coaching and attempting to have his inexperienced players run a too sophisticated offense. With a simplified approach to the game the Wildcats have started to play like they deserved that lofty poll spot last fall.

Just like UConn, as a #8 seed Kentucky had to beat higher seeded teams in every round of the tournament after their opening game. They sent the Midwest’s top seed Wichita State packing by two points, and went on to top #4 seed Louisville and #2 seed Michigan. Saturday night they faced the West’s #2 seed Wisconsin. Calipari started five freshmen, one more than Badgers’ coach Bo Ryan has started in 13 seasons. It was a taut contest that could have gone either way. With 16 seconds left Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson went to the line to shoot three free throws. He missed the first, the only free throw a Wisconsin player missed all night. That single error proved fatal, when at the other end of the court Aaron Harrison’s three-pointer fell through the net with 5.7 seconds remaining, giving Calipari’s kids a 74-73 win.

So Monday night the two old basketball powers will square off, but in decidedly different roles than the ones they usually play. It’s been 35 years since the tournament started seeding teams, and this matchup of #7 against #8 makes for the highest seed total of any championship game. The final contest of this year’s tournament may not involve a Cinderella story. But for all of the history of the two teams that will take the court, it is a game that no one saw coming.

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