UConn’s age and wisdom prevailed over Kentucky’s youth
ARLINGTON, Texas — Connecticut struck a blow for all the folks who say that seeding doesn’t matter in March Madness. The Huskies never came close to letting their No. 7 seed define them.
As second-year coach Kevin Ollie was quick to say after the game, this program should never be referred to as a "Cinderella." He was tasked with replacing the legendary Jim Calhoun, a man who hasn’t exactly kept a low profile since retiring two years ago amid illness and scandal. Ollie was up to the task. As a former UConn guard, he has a full understanding of the program’s history. Since 1999, the school has now won four national titles. At this rate, the Huskies are going to soon feel as entitled as Kentucky fans.
"I mean, this is what we do," said Ollie. "We are born for this. We [are] bred to cut down nets. We’re not chasing championships. Championships are chasing us."
I’m not totally sure what that last part means, but it sounds great. Ollie wanted to drive home the point that UConn is too strong a program to sneak up on anyone. All you had to do was walk around the court after the game (which I did), and see former Huskies such as Ray Allen and Kemba Walker celebrating another title. I also spotted former Husky forward Donyell Marshall voicing his support from the stands. UConn has become one of college basketball’s blue-blood programs, but it was still a little surprising to see them take down mighty Kentucky.
This may have been the best coaching job of John Calipari’s career. His national title team from three seasons ago may have been one of the best to ever enter the tournament. This season’s team went from No. 1 to unranked before making a remarkable run in the tournament. The Wildcats showed tremendous poise in winning close games, but they weren’t in position to have Aaron Harrison win one late against UConn. The Harrison twins may go on to have great NBA careers, but they were no match for UConn’s backcourt of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatwright on Monday. Napier and Boatwright simply played at a different speed than anyone else on the court. In the first half, Boatwright convinced a Kentucky defender he was dribbling the ball out to the 3-point line before reversing course for a reverse layup. Napier was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, but Boatwright was just as devastating a lot of the time. For much of the game, they controlled both sides of the court. Calipari said the plan was to have his guards race the ball up the court in order to neutralize Boatwright and Napier’s quickness. Instead, the Harrisons jogged up the court, allowing the UConn guards to attack them and force turnovers.
One of the strangest sights was Kentucky forward Julius Randle having to leave the court only three minutes into the game. He’s been a matchup nightmare for a lot of times this season, but he spent a lot of time Monday gasping for air. CBS reported during the game that Randle was suffering from cramps, but he didn’t confirm that afterwards.
"He’s a freshman and he was anxious," said Calipari. "That was the national championship in front of 17 zillion people and he ran up and down the court three times and he got winded. It’s normal. He got winded a few other times in the game."
Perhaps playing where he grew up caused Randle to become anxious, but it sure didn’t seem to affect him Saturday against Wisconsin. It was James Young who helped the Wildcats erase most of a 15-point deficit in the first half. Young had one of the most ridiculous dunks in traffic that we’ve seen in a national title game. He provided the spark the Wildcats desperately needed to climb back in the game.
It felt like a big victory for Kentucky to close the gap to 35-31 at the half. And when Andrew Harrison opened the second half with a 3-pointer to make it 35-34, it felt like Kentucky was poised to do what it had done so many times in this tournament. But Kentucky never tied the game or took a lead in the second half. Napier, Boatwright and Germany’s Niels Giffey kept knocking down key shots every time the Wildcats would challenge.
For one evening, age and wisdom prevailed over youth. Calipari indicated after the game that a lot of his freshman will return for their sophomore seasons. Surely he wasn’t serious.
He’ll do what he does best and bring in another handful of talented freshman. But the new group will have an incredibly tough act to follow.
"I told them, this was the best group I’ve ever coached as far as really being coachable and wanting to learn," Calipari said of his team. "I’ve never coached a team this young. Never. Hope I don’t ever again."
How can Coach Cal convince more players to stick around for a few years? Maybe he should ask Ollie.