By Jim O’Connell
ARLINGTON, Texas – Connecticut and Kentucky couldn’t have met in last year’s champion-ship game and few people gave them a chance to be in this year’s.
Seventh-seeded UConn and eighth-seeded Kentucky meet tonight in one of the unlikeliest NCAA championship games ever.
Neither was around in last year’s postseason – Connecticut with a tournament ban over academics, 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 new American Athletic Conference with multiple losses to Louisville and SMU.
But 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 Naismith Memorial 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 3-pointers in the Wildcats’ last three games. Harrison rattled in a 26-footer with 5.7 seconds to go in the 74-73 win over Wisconsin in the semifinals. He made almost the same shot with 2.3 seconds left against Michigan for a 75-72 win that sent the Wildcats to the Final Four. Against Louisville, he hit a 3 with 39 seconds left to give Kentucky the lead for good in a 74-69.
“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.”
These two programs have combined to win six of the last 18 NCAA titles.
“I’m just happy we’re still playing,” Calipari said.
UConn’s leader 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 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. “Their guards, 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 ball 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.”
Kentucky 7-foot center Willie Cauley-Stein will miss tonight’s because of a lingering ankle injury. He has missed the Wildcats’ last two games.