ARLINGTON, Texas — Ever since March Madness began, Connecticut and Kentucky have embraced the role of underdog, and with good reason: Few believed either team had what it took to reach the NCAA title game.
Last year at this time, the Kentucky freshmen were contemplating high school proms and graduation. Kevin Ollie was finishing his first season as the UConn coach and picking up the pieces of a program that had been barred from postseason play for poor academic performance.
Now, in an unlikely clash of underdogs, UConn and Kentucky will meet Monday for the national title.
Throughout the teams’ unlikely runs to the Final Four, two distinct narratives emerged.
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In Connecticut, it was Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, perhaps the best backcourt throughout the tournament, who have preached the gospel of patience and perseverance. Napier was a freshman on UConn’s last national championship team, in 2010-11. He was an apprentice then to Kemba Walker, now with the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats. Boatright joined the team a year later in what became a dismal two-year stretch. The Huskies were hit with academic sanctions in Napier’s junior year. Still, while other players transferred, Napier, Boatright and Niels Giffey chose to stay at UConn.
Their decision to stay stands in contrast to the narrative at Kentucky: the one-and-done recruiting system, constructed by coach John Calipari, that relies on a revolving door of outstanding freshmen who play for one season and move on, lured by the opportunity to play professionally.
Calipari had won before with a freshman-heavy lineup, but for a chunk of the season, this group of freshman all-stars seemed hopelessly wed to a “me, myself and I” mindset, impairing their ability to function as a team. Midway through the season, however, they began to figure out how to play as a great quintet: Everyone would have a chance to solo as long as the group played as an ensemble.
One of the looming questions about the title game is whether Boatright and Napier can teach Kentucky’s Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, a lesson. Aaron Harrison has been producing game-winning three-pointers in the tournament.
What turned the tide for UConn against Florida in their semifinal was suffocating defensive pressure that turned the Gators’ best three-point shooter, Michael Frazier II, into an invisible man.
Likewise, Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin, whose driving ability had helped his team win 30 straight games, was rendered virtually useless.