Forgrave: Kentucky, UConn take opposite paths to the same destination
The Year of the Freshman seemed to be coming to an ignominious end.
The Wigginses and the Embiids were long gone. So were the Parkers and the Gordons. It had come down to the Kentucky group of freshmen, the six McDonald’s All-Americans who were once considered the greatest recruiting class in college basketball history, then considered a colossal flop, then magically became part of the hottest team in the NCAA tournament.
There were 16.4 seconds left on the clock after Wisconsin junior Traevon Jackson hit two of three free throws. Those free throws put his Badgers up two in a back-and-forth Final Four game that pitted two teams that couldn’t be more opposites.
And now the team of freshmen bounded down the floor, head coach John Calipari not calling a timeout, and they were going for the tie or, depending on the size of their stones, the win.
So tell me: Who would you trust in this situation?
Do you trust the team of superfreshmen who have proven themselves equally capable of superhuman feats and superbly stupid things on the basketball court?
Or Bo Ryan’s quiet, business-like team led by upperclassmen, a group of young men who are defined by their fundamentals, by their adherence to a system and by their overarching vanilla-ness?
Oh wait. We forgot. Kentucky also has a 19-year-old shooting guard that Calipari calls “The Assassin.” And that young man, Aaron Harrison, hit an impossible-looking game-winning 3-pointer in Kentucky’s heart-stopping Elite Eight win over Michigan six days earlier. And even though Aaron Harrison hadn’t taken a 3 all game — Kentucky as a team had only taken four to Wisconsin’s 20 — Calipari called the kid’s number.
“When we huddled, I said, ‘We’re going at Aaron, boys,’ ” Calipari said afterward. “ ‘Anybody got a problem with that?’ ”
Nobody did, and Harrison nailed an NBA-distance game-winner in a thrilling 74-73 win that put the Wildcats into the national title game after a most unpredictable journey.
And even though, for many of these Kentucky youngsters, their time in college will be way too short — who knows how many will go to the NBA in a few months? — that shot guaranteed Aaron Harrison’s name will live on in college basketball lore, and that his teammates will live to play one more game.
It’s been a wild NCAA tournament, one of the wildest. The unprecedented number of overtime games, the buzzer-beaters, the upsets, the unexpected heroes (hello, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky and Kentucky’s Marcus Lee).
But is there any story more wild than Kentucky’s? From preseason No. 1 with dreams of an undefeated season, to a humbling 10-loss year that had the Wildcats stumbling going into the postseason, to finally clicking at the right time and playing in four straight of the greatest games of this great tournament: Over No. 1 seed Wichita State, then archrival Louisville, then surging past Michigan and then finally Wisconsin, all games that were decided in the final minute.
Could you ever get a storyline wilder than that?
Well how about UConn, which will join Kentucky on the floor Monday night and become the first No. 7 seed to ever play in the title game?
“I didn’t expect it,” said Tyler Olander, one of three UConn seniors who played on its 2011 national title team. “You don’t really think it is possible, but the more you grow with guys like Shabazz [Napier] and Niels [Giffey], with their determination, you can’t really count anything out. I think when we put our mind to something, we go out, and we like to do it.”
As the undercard to Saturday’s Kentucky-Wisconsin matchup, UConn beat Florida in a game that had none of the sizzle — to be honest, it was an ugly snoozefest in which Florida couldn’t make a shot — but added to UConn’s equally crazy storyline.
Where were the Huskies 18 months ago?
Their legendary coach, three-time national title winner Jim Calhoun, had just announced his retirement and installed his hand-picked successor, first-time head coach Kevin Ollie. Ollie didn’t exactly have the backing of the administration, at first given only a seven-month contract. And his team didn’t have much to play for.
UConn was under academic sanctions and was banned from playing in the postseason. Add the implosion of the Big East and the conference realignment that seemed to leave UConn out in the cold, and this basketball program didn’t seem to be headed anywhere special.
Yet here we are, in Ollie’s first NCAA tournament as a head coach, the fourth coach to make a Final Four in his first try.
Saying the Huskies were an underdog to Florida on Saturday would be an understatement. Florida had ripped off 30 wins in a row. The Gators were this tournament’s No. 1 overall seed and were playing like it. The Gators played the nation’s best defense and spread the ball around on offense, with four players averaging in double digits. Florida’s four starting seniors had played in four Elite Eights together, but this was their first Final Four.
And UConn’s hounding perimeter defense ate the Gators for lunch.
Led by senior point guard Shabazz Napier, the single most dominant player in the tournament, and aggressive guard Ryan Boatright, UConn’s unheralded defense held Florida’s two starting guards to seven points.
Michael Frazier made a 3 on the first possession of the game and never made another. Backup point guard Kasey Hill looked frustrated and out of place all game, turning the ball over four times.
Florida’s 53 points tied for the fewest it had scored all season. And against Florida’s impressive interior defense, DeAndre Daniels played his best game, scoring 20 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.
And so we have the national title game that no one would have guessed three weeks ago: No. 8 seed Kentucky and its suddenly mature freshmen against No. 7 seed UConn and its experienced, tenacious crew.
The teams come here after two polar opposite journeys — Kentucky after a season of overhype, overanalysis and underachievement, UConn after a couple years in which the entire future of its program seemed up in the air.
One team has Napier, the composed senior point guard who wills his team to victory. The other team has the zero-degree-Kelvin-blooded Harrison, the Robert “Big Shot Bob” Horry of college basketball. They both have the joy of still being in the hunt when most predicted they’d be long gone.
It’s been a wild ride for them both, not to mention for the rest of us who stood by and watched. There’s one more game left. I’d predict a winner, but the way this tournament has gone, I have no doubt I’ll be wrong.
But I fully expect an overtime game, or a buzzer-beater, or an unexpected hero — the type of crazy ending this crazy tournament deserves.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.