Down in North Texas, inside the colossus that Jerry Jones built, Kentucky and Connecticut will meet Monday for the 2014 national title.
With the Huskies seeded No. 7 and the Wildcats seeded No. 8, it marks the lowest combined seeding for a national championship game since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. In fact, it is only the second time in history that these two particular seeds have squared off in any round. But these are hardly Cinderellas, or even underdogs. Bolstered by its freshman-heavy roster, Kentucky has spoiled Wichita State’s undefeated season, won its in-state battle with trendy favorite Louisville, topped another 2013 Final Four participant in Michigan and finally edged the Badgers, 74-73, behind another gutsy late shot from freshman Aaron Harrison.
The Wildcats, who start five rookies, survived after a last-second shot from Traevon Jackson skipped off the backboard and rolled around the rim, and only took the lead when Harrison, twin of fellow guard Andrew, launched a deep bomb that sank through the net, less than one week after doing almost the exact same thing against the Wolverines. Before a Final Four-record crowd of 79,444, Kentucky advanced to its second national championship game of the past three seasons, the trips sandwiched between a frustrating 2013 season that ended with a first-round NIT loss against Robert Morris.
En route to the program’s fourth title game appearance since 1985, Connecticut spoiled Florida’s 30-game winning streak with a 63-53 victory and, coincidentally enough, wound up handing the Gators their penultimate and ultimate losses this season. The current Huskies endured a one-year NCAA tournament ban and handled a coaching change, not to mention enough slip-ups throughout the winter to justify their No. 7 seeding, to reach the championship game. It has been a magical ride thanks in no small part to point guard Shabazz Napier, who scored 12 points against Florida, but the Huskies owe their recent success to DeAndre Daniels, the stretch-four match-up nightmare with the unguardable fadeaway jumper. Daniels had 20 points and 10 rebounds on Saturday and, over the past three games — victories over Ohio State, Michigan State and Florida — he has missed seven two-pointers and made 19.
Monday, of course, will be replete with storylines. John Calipari, Kentucky’s coach, was an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers when Connecticut Coach Kevin Ollie played there. And how about the prospective backcourt battle between the Harrisons, twins with an innate cosmic connection, and Napier and Ryan Boatright, who USA Today compared to Batman and Robin. The Wildcats did a solid job limiting NCAA tournament darling Frank Kiminsky (eight points, five rebounds), so will they deploy a similar strategy to handle Daniels? After beating Florida, Calipari told TBS that he hadn’t seen one minute of Huskies film this season, so he planned to spend the wee hours of the night cramming.
He will find a team that has thrived in pressure situations, using the nation’s fourth-best free-throw rate and a remarkable calm across the roster to ice games. He will see a time entirely different from the group that lost to Louisville by 33 points on March 8, a team that has won five straight during the NCAA tournament. He will see Napier, Boatright and Daniels, of course, but he will also see senior Niels Giffey, who owns the country’s third-highest effective field-goal percentage, and freshman Amida Brimah, fourth in the nation in block rate.
Ollie and his staff will be presented with a similar challenge, tasked with figuring out a Wildcats team peaking at the perfect time. No group is better at offensive rebounding, even without injured sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein. Julius Randle will be drafted in the top five of June’s NBA draft. Aaron Harrison has become a dead-eye shooter and Andrew has become a reliable floor general. Swingman James Young can do it all, scoring 13 points on 5 for 7 shooting against the Gators, while Dakari Johnson can bang inside with the strongest of Connecticut’s bigs.
Given how well both teams have played, it seems almost unnecessary to continue referring to Kentucky and Connecticut as such low seeds, because they have earned their way to Monday. But they remain, serving as a reminder of how far the Wildcats and Huskies come, and the glory that lies only one victory away.
Tip-off is scheduled for 8:30 p.m., broadcast on CBS.
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