Connecticut’s DeAndre Daniels celebrates after defeating Florida in Saturday’s semifinal. The Huskies are looking to win their fourth NCAA title with a victory tonight against Kentucky. (Reuters)
No. 8 Kentucky (29-10) vs. No. 7 Connecticut (31-8)
WHAT: NCAA Tournament national championship
WHEN: 9:10 p.m today
WHERE: Arlington, Texas
LINE: Kentucky by 2 1/2
ARLINGTON, Texas — If 2013 didn’t exist, we would be looking at a classic NCAA Tournament national championship pitting the past two seasons’ champions.
But, of course, 2013 happened. And it just so happens that neither the Kentucky Wildcats, the 2012 national champion, nor the Connecticut Huskies, the 2011 national champion, even made the tournament last season. Kentucky slumped to a 21-12 season and a loss in the first round of the NIT while Connecticut was banned from postseason play due to poor academic progress.
So the Huskies vs. the Wildcats is not only a matchup of perennial college basketball powers, it’s also the first time since 1966 that the neither of the tournament championship combatants made the field the previous year.
And in case 1966 rings a bell for Kentucky fans, perhaps on a downer note, that was the year Texas Western defeated the Wildcats in the final, a feat immortalized by the film “Glory Road.”
The circumstances allowed both squads to dole out plenty of “look what we went through” and “nobody thought we would be here” lines leading into today’s game, especially since Connecticut came into the tournament with a No. 7 seeded, one slot better than the eighth-seeded Wildcats.
Connecticut second-year coach Kevin Ollie said last year’s postseason ban served as a catapult of sorts.
“I keep saying, ‘the bigger the problem, the bigger the destiny,’” Ollie said. “We knew this destiny was coming. Because our problems that we faced, we overcame them together.”
Huskies forward DeAndre Daniels led the charge in the win over Florida and the rhetoric in the aftermath.
“We feel like we’ve been doubted the whole seasons and definitely in the tournament,” Daniels said. “That’s what drives us. We like to go out and try to prove people long.”
As for the Wildcats, they’ve now defeated top-seeded Wichita State, defending champion Louisville, 2013 runner-up Michigan and Wisconsin on the way to the final.
“Now we’ve got Connecticut,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “It’s nuts and we’re still standing, which is great.”
The next two days will raise questions about how these current teams stand up in comparisons from teams passed from two of college basketball’s top programs. Kentucky has won eight national titles to Connecticut’s three. And, of course, if 2013 didn’t exist, this would be the last two champions facing each other.
Not that the Huskies want to make any comparisons.
Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier said he knows this team will be likened to the Huskies’ 2011 national champions. But he said he sees few similarities.
“We understand we’re going to get compared to them,” Napier said. “We want to create our own path. We believe in each other and we want to continue to push for each other.”
Kentucky barely has any players who can speak about the experience of winning the national championship two seasons ago. The Wildcats started five freshmen against Wisconsin and only one player who was a member of the 2012 championship team played — guard Jarrod Polson — and he entered the game for just three minutes.
Kentucky missed out on a chance to play Florida for the fourth time this season and get revenge on the Gators three previous victories. Nobody was complaining though.
“I didn’t watch any of Connecticut or Florida,” Calipari said. “When you’re playing this late in the year, you don’t care, truly now, who you play.”