Men's basketball: Kentucky, UConn just needed time to flourish

By Los Angeles Times  • 
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Tonight’s NCAA championship game at AT&T Stadium sets up as a matchup of overachieving seedlings.

If you didn’t know the history you’d say it was nice to see the “little guys” finally breaking through the plexiglass backboard.

This No. 15 combination platter is the highest total number to play for the title since the NCAA started seeding in 1979.

Poor old No. 7 Connecticut hasn’t won an NCAA title since 2011 and luckless No. 8 Kentucky hasn’t hoisted a banner since 2012.

Oh, wait.

Connecticut and Kentucky are actually Cinder-fellas, not Cinderellas.

The NCAA selection committee (and most bracket pickers in America) may be surprised these schools reached the final game but, trust us, no one in Storrs or Lexington considers this an upset.

Louisville beat Connecticut three times this year and Florida defeated Kentucky three times, but what does that matter now?

Connecticut just needed some time to develop and Kentucky just needed to grow up.

“I thought we just had too many competitors on this team just to let our season slide,” Kentucky freshman forward Julius Randle said.

Connecticut is in tonight’s final because other players, particularly forward DeAndre Daniels, have stepped up in support of star guard Shabazz Napier.

Kentucky is 40 minutes from a net cut because its vaunted freshman class started to coalesce around the time of Selection Sunday.

Kentucky is riding one of the hottest hands in NCAA history in freshman guard Aaron Harrison, who has hit the winning shot in the Wildcats’ past three wins.

“Man, he’s a clutch player,” Napier, a clutch player himself, said of Harrison. “Hopefully it doesn’t come down to his shot.”

This is a game of forwards and guards but also a game of shadows.

Hovering over Kentucky is the ghost of Adolph Rupp and the unyielding expectations the “Baron of the Bluegrass” left behind.

Kentucky coach John Calipari, basically a gun for hire, feels the burden from sunrise to sunset.

He already led Kentucky to its eighth national title, in 2012, and that honeymoon lasted until he had the gall to miss last year’s tournament.

“The job at Kentucky ages you,” Calipari said.

Lurking over Connecticut is the aura of Jim Calhoun, who retired in 2012 after leading the Huskies to three national championships in 26 seasons.

Nagging injuries, bouts with cancer and advancing age forced Calhoun to retire before he wanted to go. The NCAA probably played a part when it hit Connecticut with a postseason ban for failure to meet academic standards.

Calhoun was lucky enough that Kevin Ollie, one of his own, was chosen as his successor. This is Ollie’s team now, but these are Calhoun’s recruits.

Kentucky is 40 minutes from its ninth NCAA title and Connecticut is 40 minutes from its fourth.

You know, just a couple of middle-seeded mid-majors trying to find their way in the basketball world.

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