ARLINGTON, Texas — For a game featuring the highest combined seed total in NCAA Tournament championship game history, there sure don’t seem to be any Cinderellas left at the ball.
Seventh-seeded Connecticut vs. eighth-seeded Kentucky will be a matchup of perennial college basketball powerhouses dressed, oddly, as underdogs when the NCAA Tournament Final tips at 9:10 p.m. ET on Monday at AT&T Stadium.
“Well, I don’t think we were an eight seed and I don’t think Connecticut was a seven seed,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “But that’s where they seeded us.”
Part of the reason for the seeding might be that neither the Huskies nor Wildcats made the tournament last season and each took a while to find their respective rhythms this season.
Kentucky suffered a mediocre 21-12 record and lost in the first round of the NIT after star Nerlens Noel went down with an injury in 2012-13. Meanwhile, Connecticut sat through a postseason ban for poor academic progress. So for the first time since 1966, two teams absent from the field the previous season will meet in the NCAA Tournament national championship.
But these two programs are as far away from upstarts as they can get. Kentucky has won eight national championships, the most recent in 2012. Connecticut won the 2011 title, the third in its program history.
So there was almost no underdog talk during off-day press conferences. In its place, there was plenty of discussion of championship pedigree, fabulous freshmen and the clutch shooting of Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison, who has hit game-winning 3-pointers in the Wildcats last three victories.
“It’s just the best feeling in the world,” Harrison said. “Of course, everyone knows when you’re a kid that you always dream about hitting the game-winning shot, so it’s just unreal to actually be able to do that in a big-time game.”
Huskies senior guard Shabazz Napier easily identified with the position Harrison has thrived in during the tournament. It is the scenario all basketball players, particularly great ones, mimic when they are alone in the gym.
“Probably, Harrison, when he was younger would be on the courts going, ‘3 … 2 … 1 … ‘ and he’d shoot the ball,” Napier said. “He’s been shooting the ball real well, and it’s been when they need it the most. Clutch … clutch shots and that just shows you how great of a competitor he is.”
Meanwhile, the Huskies have their own legacy to live up to as the 2011 Connecticut run to the national championship is still fresh on the minds of college basketball fans.
However, Napier said he would like to avoid comparisons.
“This is a totally different team,” Napier said. “We got a different coach, different players, different managers going down the line. So, I mean, it just is a totally different team. We always said that we want to do what that team did, but at the end of the day, we want to go on our own path. So far so good. We just got to get one more 40-minute game.”
Any comparisons between the 2011 Huskies and this national finalist would feature Napier in the starring role played by Kemba Walker in 2011. Walker scored 18 points in a semifinal victory over Kentucky and 16 in the national championship win over Butler to lead Connecticut in both games.
But Napier, with a huge dose of help from forward DeAndre Daniels and guard Ryan Boatright, offset such comparisons in the way they defeated Florida. Napier scored 12 points with six assists and four steals, but Daniels led the scoring charge with 20 to go along with 10 rebounds and Boatright pitched in 13 points and three assists.
“They were double-teaming Shabazz a lot,” Boatright said. “And the unselfish player that he is, he was just giving it up, making plays for his teammates and everybody stepped up.”
Just like that, the Huskies, like the Wildcats, stepped into the only position where the respective programs are comfortable: the national championship spotlight.
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