The stage is set: Kentucky vs. Connecticut for the NCAA championship.
A few years ago, this match-up would not have caused a single person to bat an eye. The Huskies won it all in 2011 and Kentucky the year after.
But that was then and this is now. In 2014, a match-up such as this one was deemed impossible by fans and experts alike. Kentucky was a young, inexperienced team coming out of a weak SEC conference and UConn was still trying to find their identity after an up-and-down regular season, well, according to the experts.
However, as we learned on Saturday night, none of these things matter in March. The 7-seed vs. 8-seed match-up is the highest combined seed total in history for any NCAA DI men’s basketball championship game.
Here, we take a look at how of these teams got here and made some analysts (and myself) look silly.
They did what any underdog would have to do in their situation to make the championship game; they slayed the giant. The Gators have not been known for their offense all season and it reared its daunting head as they only mustered 53 points and tallied just three assists. To put that in perspective, Shabazz Napier had six assists himself and his sidekick Ryan Boatright matched the Gators total with three of his own.
It was not all just the senior Napier, however. DeAndre Daniels was the x-factor for the Huskies as he sparked an 11-0 Husky run when they were down 16-4 midway through the first half and finished the game with 20 points and 10 rebounds.
UConn had a much tougher path to the Final Four than the opposing Gators, and that may have been a factor in Florida’s offensive struggles. The Gators have not played as good as an opponent as Connecticut since they played Kentucky in the SEC championship, and even then the Wildcats were not as good a team as they are now.
The Huskies were well seasoned heading into their bout with Florida after beating Saint Joe’s, Villanova, Iowa State and Michigan State in the East bracket. Florida was not properly prepared for the Huskies’ physicality and quick guard play and that showed on Saturday night.
This is only the second season at the helm for head coach Kevin Ollie was teammates with Kevin Durant in OKC the year before the UConn last won the championship.
The win only furthers the comparisons between Kemba Walker and Napier; both seniors who led their team to national championship games. The only piece to the puzzle we have yet to identify is a championship ring.
It is okay to finally say it out loud: the 2014 Kentucky Wildcats are the next “Fab Five.” Nobody knows how John Calipari’s team pulled it off, but they did. Pure grit and toughness has propelled UK to its first championship game appearance since 2012.
Aaron Harrison has had ice-water running through his veins all tournament long. Harrison’s game-winner Saturday night was his third straight go-ahead three-pointer. He did it against Louisville. He did it against Michigan. Now, Harrison can add Wisconsin to his list of tournament victims.
Credit the Badgers though, for they did nearly everything right. Wisconsin’s lone miss from the free-throw line late in the game was just enough to leave the door cracked open for Harrison to work his magic. The Badgers had five players score in double digits, which on most nights, is the ultimate formula for success. The Wildcats were simply able to match the Badgers blow-for-blow down the stretch to steal the victory out from under their noses.
Much like the Huskies, the Wildcats are well seasoned after a tough road to the Final Four. The Wildcats have beaten a nine, one, four and two two-seeds to get where they are now.
As mentioned before, Kentucky doesn’t know how to give up, and the following statistic proves that. After their first round game against Kansas State, Kentucky has not held a halftime lead against their opponents and has not won by any more than five points. If that is not the epitome of grit, I don’t know what is.
Kentucky’s freshmen scored 66 points on Saturday night, the most by any team’s freshmen in Final Four history. Kentucky has single-handedly crushed my theory that the teams that do best in March are those filled with determined seniors. UConn proved me right in this regard, and Kentucky did the exact opposite. Just goes to show, nobody is right in March.
This year’s championship will be exceptional due to the fact that both teams are playing their best basketball of the year in April. It is youthful (to say the least) Wildcats against the Huskies who rely on their experienced guard play and interior physicality. It is one team of destiny going against another team of destiny and only one can live happily ever after.
It is time to throw all statistics and analysis out of the window and simply enjoy the beauty of the sport on its biggest stage. It is for this reason that I decline to make a formal prediction, along with the fact that my bracket officially went south after the Elite Eight as I had Florida winning it all (thanks Shabazz).
However, if I were to pick a team to win, I would have to go with Connecticut due to the fact that it would fittingly complete the Shabazz/Kemba comparison and also because the original Fab Five never hoisted the trophy.
Thoroughly enjoy Monday night, everyone, and feel no obligation to do anything on Tuesday.