For the first time ever in Division I college basketball, the final of the NCAA Tournament will be between a #7, the UConn Huskies and a #8, the Kentucky Wildcats, seeds, in a championship game that only 0.01% of those with brackets predicted would come through.
Kentucky has been about clutch shots so far in the tournament, mostly from the Harrison twins and Aaron Harrison coming up with the latest. Julius Randle has been great in the paint and all of a sudden, all that athleticism and talent is coming together into a team mold after a rough season. UConn aren’t exploding with talent but have plenty of it with Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels, not to mention a defense that has made Florida and Michigan State look very bad.
This will be the 12th time Kentucky play for the national championship, hoping for it to be the ninth win. Under John Calipari, they’ve gone all the way once, in 2012, winning the final against Kansas 67-59. This is the first time we’ve seen a team make two finals in the span of three years since Billy Donovan’s Florida 2006 & 2007 champions.
Kentucky were only an #8 seed going into the tournament, but have played like the team everyone expected to see at the beginning of the year, when they were a preseason #1. So after going 12-6 in the SEC which inculded losing to Florida twice in the regular season and then another time in the conference championship final, things just clicked for them. They began with a 56-49 win over Kansas State in the round of 64, and that was actually the least close game. They beat undefeated Wichita State 78-76 in the following round.
In the Sweet Sixteen it was a clash with state rivals Louisville, and Kentucky once again came up with the goods against expectations, beating the Cardinals 74-69. In the Elite Eight they met with Michigan in a game that came down to a final shot that went the Wildcats’ way, winning 75-72. The same thing happened against another Big Ten rival, Wisconsin, beating the Badgers 74-73 on a game winner from Aaron Harrison.
Kentucky play with a lineup that’s made entirely of Freshmem, led by Julius Randle who is averaging 15.1 points and 10.5 rebounds per game; James Young with 14.2 points per game; Aaron Harrison with 13.9 points a night; Andrew Harrison with 10.9 points a game; and Dakari Johnson, averaging 5.2 points and 3.9 rebounds per game.
The men’s basketball program in Connecticut is a perfect 3-for-3 in championship games over the years, winning in 1999, 2004 and 2011, all under Jim Calhoun. The current head coach, Kevin Ollie, who was a player for the Huskies in the early 90’s and an assistant on the 2011 national champions, is only in his second season as the team’s HC.
UConn didn’t come in to the tournament with a whole lot of momentum either. A #7 seed that lost to Louisville by 10 points in the American conference championship game, not to mention losing to the Cardinals by 33 points at the end of the regular season.
However, following Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels with a much improved defense as the tournament progresses has turned things around. It started with a tough 89-81 overtime win over Saint Joseph’s, followed by a big 77-65 win over former Big East rivals Villanova. Next up was one of the best games we’ve seen in the tournament as the Huskies squared off against Iowa State, beating the Cyclones 81-76. Michigan State were stunned by UConn’s defense and toughness, not to mention Shabazz Napier, in the Elite Eight with a 60-54 win and the same thing happened to Florida in the Final Four, losing 63-53.
UConn aren’t a freshmen team – quite the opposite. Their leading player is Shabazz Napier, averaging 17.9 points per game this season along with 5.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists. The rising Junior, DeAndre Daniels, with 13.2 points and 6 rebounds, comes next. Ryan Boatright is the second of three guards in the lineup, averaging 12.1 points per game; Niles Giffey completes the backcourt with 8.4 points per game, and the Phillip Nolan completes the picture of the starting five.