Kentucky, UConn turned 'dark time' into shining moments

jtipton@herald-leader.comApril 6, 2014 

  • When: 9:10 p.m. Monday | Where: AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas | TV: CBS-27 | Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1, WLXO-FM 96.1

    Records: UK 29-10, Connecticut 31-8 | Series: Connecticut leads 3-1 | Last meeting: Connecticut won 56-55 on April 2, 2011, in the NCAA Tournament semifinals in Houston

ARLINGTON, Texas — On March 8, Kentucky and Connecticut lost games by a combined margin of 52 points. Almost a month later to the day, those same teams play for the national championship.

UK (No. 8) and UConn (No. 7) comprise the most modest pairing of seeds in an NCAA Tournament finals, easily surpassing the 2011 Monday night matchup between No. 3-seed Connecticut and No. 8 Butler. But modesty does not become these teams.

"It's not a fluke that we are here," UConn's second-year coach, Kevin Ollie, declared in summing up his team's grit and determination. "It's core values and it's principles. It's not a fluke."

Kentucky, too, does not embrace the notion of a storybook ride even if it took three Aaron Harrison three-pointers in the final seconds (and misses by Wichita State, Michigan and Wisconsin) to get here.

"I don't think we look at it as a surprise as much as other people," Jarrod Polson said. "Obviously, our seeding makes it look like a Cinderella story."

Florida, this NCAA Tournament's overall No. 1 seed and the team UConn defeated in Saturday's semifinals, figures in both teams' transition from March 8 blowout defeat to Monday night's title game.

Of course, Kentucky punctuated a disappointing regular season with an 84-65 loss at Florida. Shortly thereafter, Coach John Calipari talked about a eureka moment, which he dubbed a "tweak." On Sunday, the UK players talked about how Calipari simplified assignments and, thus, freed talented players to make plays.

"Way more simpler," James Young said. "We know our roles now."

Marcus Lee spoke of a "smaller amount" of duties in game rather than a "broad horizon" of responsibilities.

Jim Calhoun, UConn's coaching icon and now a basketball elder statesman to act as a sounding board for Ollie, noticed a difference.

"They are simplistic," Calhoun said of the Cats. "But they're simplistically good. They have terrific players."

Kentucky's freshman-dominated rotation presents a radically different challenge than, say, Wisconsin, the team the Cats beat in the semifinals.

"Wisconsin is incredibly organized, they play together," Calhoun said. "If John (Calipari) tried that, it'd be a miserable failure. It would be."

Each approach presents challenges. Wisconsin probably would not beat itself.

"The other team," Calhoun said of Kentucky, "has the opportunity during the whole 40 minutes to make any kind of play."

Calhoun noted Andrew Harrison's odd-looking lob that Alex Poythress dunked home against Wisconsin. "I thought that pass was awful," he said, "and the guy dunks it."

Michigan, which lost to Kentucky in the Midwest Region finals on March 30, noted that kind of improvisational playmaking.

"They're some of the best one-on-one players that you can find," Michigan forward Jordan Morgan said of the Cats. "They don't run a lot of stuff. But they're going to challenge you to play defense."

Defense is UConn's calling card. That became apparent in the Huskies' 63-53 victory over Florida. Scottie Wilbekin, the Gators' point guard and the Most Valuable Player of the Southeastern Conference, made only two of nine shots, committed three turnovers and got credit for only one assist. Overall, Florida had three assists and 11 turnovers.

"That says a lot," Polson said of UConn throttling Wilbekin. "They have two of the quickest guards, probably, in the country, and they really like to get into you."

Those guards are senior Shabazz Napier, the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year and a player for UConn's 2011 national championship team, and junior Ryan Boatright.

"We come from the inner-city," Boatright said in explaining UConn's tenacious defense. "It's tough growing up. You're going to have natural heart and natural pride to be successful."

Going into the Final Four, UConn ranked 13th nationally in holding opponents to 39.2 percent shooting accuracy. Florida made 38.8 percent of its shots.

"The perimeter defense on this team, right now, is as good as I've seen it at UConn," Calhoun said. "Ever.

"Wilbekin didn't have a good game. He didn't have a good game not because of anything with the crowd or the officials or condensation. He had a bad game because two guys were all over him.

"Pressure on the ball, deep pressure on the ball and the support they're getting has been magnificent."

Of course, containing Kentucky's guards out of the lane is a key for UConn.

"We call it our yard," Calhoun said. "We don't want (the game played) in our yard."

For all its defensive prowess, UConn lost 81-48 at Louisville on March 8. Ollie took solace in a 65-64 victory over Florida on Dec. 2.

"Instead of yelling and going crazy, he put the Florida game on TV," forward Niels Giffey said of Ollie's reaction. "His way of showing us how good a team we could be."

Ollie described the loss at Louisville as a pivotal moment.

"A dark time is what promotes you," he said. "I'm glad it happened because we went back and I had to evaluate myself as a coach. And I hope every player went to their dorms and looked themselves in the mirror and had to evaluate their effort."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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