Kentucky Wildcats, Connecticut Huskies don’t mind close games
(CNN) — Before the college basketball season began, many experts thought a No. 1 recruiting class would translate into another Kentucky Wildcats national title.
The young — very young — Wildcats were the preseason No. 1 pick in both of the major polls after signing eight highly ranked freshman in what some commentators said was the best incoming class of all time.
But by the time the postseason began five months later, many people, including many diehard Wildcat fans, didn’t expect much in the NCAA tournament from the struggling and inconsistent Wildcats.
Well, there was one guy.
You may have heard about the fan who — despite the fact the Wildcats were unranked, just 24-10 and not even champions of their conference — got a tattoo on his right ankle that said: “2014 National Champions UK.”
People took to the social media to laugh at the dude, who gave new meaning to “fanatic.” They called Tyler Black dumb, crazy, delusional.
And guess where he will be Monday night. At AT&T Stadium watching his Wildcats, an eight seed, play the University of Connecticut, a seven seed, to culminate one of the wildest tournaments ever.
“Did he paint that on? Well, I know one guy that is going to cheer for us really hard,” Kentucky coach John Calipari told CNN’s Rachel Nichols.
On Monday night, Calipari will send out five freshmen to start the game against the Huskies. It is the first time since 1992 when Michigan had a prized group called the “Fab Five” that an all-first-year set of players will be on the court for the jump ball.
Perhaps it should be noted the Fab Five lost the title game by 20 points to a Duke team that was led by upperclassmen including player-of-the-year Christian Laettner.
But times have indeed changed as many more young players are heading to the NBA (the league has a rule that a 19-year-old player can leave for the NBA draft one year after his high school class graduates). Kentucky has become the focal point for many of those young stars — and for critics of the so-called “one-and-done” players.
In 2010, a Kentucky team with three freshman starters won the national title then saw all three (and three other players) drafted.
Calipari, who in five seasons at Kentucky has led three young teams to the Final Four, calls it “Succeed and Proceed.”
Connecticut is led by senior guard Shabazz Napier and junior guard Ryan Boatright. The experienced duo has been the best backcourt tandem in the tournament and the Huskies have been particularly good at the free-throw line and on defense.
“Our defensive mentality, paying attention to details, we always say the genius is in the details,” second-year coach Kevin Ollie said. “We’re paying attention to more details and these guys know if we lose, we go home.”
The Wildcats might present their toughest challenge yet. According to Bleacher Report, it’s not just the Wildcats’ talent, it’s their size, especially at guard with twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison each 6-foot-6.
They like to drive into the lane and use their size to score near the basket. If Napier and Boatright can limit their penetration, Kentucky faces a more difficult task.
Don’t be surprised if the Wildcats get behind early. They seem to have done that in each game of the tournament, only to rally and win a close game in the end.
“This thing has been an unbelievable ride by a group of young players who have just refused to lose, who figure out ways to win, who get down 10 and grow hair on their necks, and come out with claws. And all you see is teeth and feet,” Calipari told CNN. “I have no idea why they do it, but they do it.”
The Wildcats have won their five tournament games by seven, two, five, three and one points. In the past four games, they have trailed in the final two minutes each time.
And in the last two games, Aaron Harrison has made a magical last-minute three-pointer to give Kentucky a win.
But the Huskies have also been clutch in close contests because they make free throws — an amazing 77.4% as a team. And in the tournament they have made 92% of their 60 attempts.
The two teams have each won three titles in the past 18 years, but neither was even in the tournament a year ago. Kentucky had a group of freshmen that never meshed as a team and UConn was ineligible because of it didn’t meet NCAA graduation requirements.