Someone is going to make history Monday night when Kentucky and Connecticut meet in for the NCAA basketball championship, as either the No. 8-seed Wildcats or No. 7-seed Huskies will become the lowest-seeded team to win an NCAA title since Villanova did it as an eight seed in 1985.
The teams will bring contrasting styles to AT&T Stadium, with UConn relying on veteran leadership and tough defense to win, while Kentucky will hope its abundant individual skill will trump Connecticut’s sum-of-its-parts approach.
Each school has won a title in recent years — Kentucky two years ago and UConn the season before that — and either could cut down the nets on Monday, but here are four reasons to believe Kentucky could leave this year’s Final Four as champions:
Look, Kentucky wasn’t the NCAA’s preseason No. 1 for nothing, and it seems the Wildcats are finally coming into their own and living up to the expectations bestowed on them when the season kicked off. UK’s latest batch of freshman imports may have made for one of the top recruiting classes ever — Kentucky had the No. 1 recruit in the country at four different positions and six five-star players total — and while they might all be gone next year, you can’t really argue against the fact that that having Julius Randle, Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and James Young gives the Wildcats an edge in talent. Kentucky entered the tournament as a horribly placed 8-seed and proved that they were deserving of much better, and whereas UConn has been a team playing beyond its abilities thus far, Kentucky has emerged as the team we always thought they’d be.
THE ‘CATS ARE CLUTCH — ESPECIALLY AARON HARRISON
Seriously, if you’re up by three points or less with less than a minute to play in a basketball game, is there anyone in America you want shooting the ball for the other team less than Aaron Harrison? Kentucky has hardly made it here by winning handily, and each of the last four games has come down, essentially, to a huge late 3. Against Wichita State, it was James Young who hit one with 1:40 left to put Kentucky up for good, but Harrison kicked off his ridiculous series of ice-cold 3s against Louisville, striking with 40 seconds to go to give the ‘Cats the edge. Those were simply the appetizers for the main course, of course — Harrison’s game-winning 3s in the final seconds against both Michigan and Wisconsin — and the threat of the ruthless Harrison having a chance to do it one more time should be enough to put fear in the hearts of Connecticut fans.
SIZE ADVANTAGE DOWN LOW
No disrespect to DeAndre Daniels, Phillip Nolan and Amida Brimah, but UConn just can’t match Kentucky’s skill in the frontcourt. Julius Randle is believed to be a lottery pick and has the makings of a future NBA star, and he was on point against Wisconsin, hitting 6 of 10 shots and scoring 16 points. And even without the injured sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein — who is tied for sixth nationally with 106 blocks this season and has not played the last two games — Kentucky has a more-than-capable backup in Dakari Johnson, who might be UConn’s best frontcourt asset if he played for Kevin Ollie instead. When Kentucky stretches the floor with Alex Poythress at the 3, he’ll be matched up, most likely, with Niels Giffey, which, one could argue, gives UConn a disadvantage at all three positions. Surely, UConn fans will be quick to offer a reminder that their team was supposed to be outclassed against Patric Young and the Florida Gators on Saturday, but Young, frankly, had his way with the Huskies, and Kentucky will provide an even tougher task.
CAL’S COACHING EDGE
Kevin Ollie has done an incredible job at UConn, bringing the Huskies back to the national championship far more quickly than even the most die-hard UConn supporter could have expected, but for all Ollie has accomplished in his short time in Storrs, he’s still not John Calipari, the cagey Kentucky coach who is as prepared as one could get for this moment — mostly because he’s been there before. Calipari took Massachusetts to the Final Four, then he did it again with Memphis. He’s now been there three out of the last four years with Kentucky, and though it’s easy to write Calipari off as a great recruiter who lets his talent do the work, there’s something to be said for getting the most out of it on such a consistent basis. Ollie has done and will continue to do great things at Connecticut, but when given the option of him or Coach Cal pulling the strings late in a championship game, I’ll take the guy who’s been there before.