The Kentucky Wildcats had a recruiting class that was historic. They had six incoming freshman who were McDonald’s All-Americans. That type of talent in one class is unmatched. The jewel of the class was Julius Randle, the best player on the team this year and future NBA top five draft pick. Kentucky head coach John Calipari has a history of stellar recruiting since his coaching days at the University of Memphis and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, so if there was any coach who could pull something like this off, it would be him. Unfortunately for Calipari, the regular season did not turn out the way it was supposed to.
Before the season started, Calipari did an interview with USA Today. He was asked if he had ever had a roster that compared to this season’s in terms of sheer volume and depth. Like a typical coach, he didn’t want to exacerbate the hype, but his comments also show that he may have seen the inconsistent regular season coming. Calipari said, “Until I get with them, I don’t know.” He was right.
Kentucky finished the regular season 24-10 and second in the Southeastern conference with a record of 12-6. It was a monumental disappointment for a team that was ranked preseason number one. When the tournament brackets were announced on Selection Sunday, Kentucky was now in the unfamiliar place of not having a clue what seed they would be. They were given an eight seed and placed in the Midwest Region.
They were a popular upset pick over the number one seed Wichita State Shockers who were undefeated. They did not disappoint as they beat the Shockers in a thriller, 78-76. Their Sweet Sixteen game was against in-state rival Louisville. Louisville is everything Kentucky is not. They are a veteran team led by seniors, specifically Russ Smith and their coach, the legendary Rick Pitino, coaches to a system. Louisville is not known for recruiting the five-star prospects that Kentucky does. Kentucky came away with the win, 74-69. Freshman standout Julius Randle gave another dominant performance, but in this game, he was helped by fellow freshman Dakari Johnson. The duo was too much for the Cardinal.
Next came Michigan in the Elite 8. Randle came up big again, with 16 points and 11 rebounds in just 32 minutes, downing the Wolverines by three, 75-72. As big as Randle was in that game, no shot was bigger than the game winning three that Aaron Harrison hit with 2.3 seconds remaining to send his team to the final four for a matchup with number two seeded Wisconsin.
The young Kentucky team leaves it up till the end and Aaron Harrison again hits a game-winning three, this time with 5.2 seconds left, and his team wins 74-73. Now they have a date with the Connecticut Huskies at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. A team that John Calipari admitted during his post-game interview, “I don’t know anything about ’em.” They couldn’t be more different.
Kentucky starts five freshmen, while Connecticut only has freshmen in their rotation. Kentucky’s best player is a freshman who could play in the NBA tomorrow, and Connecticut’s best player is a senior who is a fringe NBA prospect. Kentucky’s head coach is a legend; Connecticut’s head coach is Kevin Ollie.
Kevin Ollie played on 11 teams in 13 seasons during his NBA career. He is happy to be settled in one place. He replaced the legendary Jim Calhoun at Connecticut; a man he both played and coached under. In his just his second season as coach, Ollie has gone up against some of the best coaches in college basketball in this tournament. He took them all down, beating Jay Wright of Villanova, Tom Izzo of Michigan State, and most recently Billy Donovan of Florida.
Behind the steady play of senior Shabazz Napier, Connecticut has made it to the National Championship game. They don’t have a lot of great talent, but they have proven they are a great team. They are resilient, much like a guy who was willing to play 13 seasons in the NBA, even if it was for 11 different teams. On paper, Kentucky is the superior team–no doubt. That’s why they are favored, but talent doesn’t always equal wins. If you have watched one UCONN game in this tournament, you can see how close this team is to each other and to their coach. With every win, they were celebrating.
Ollie told the Chicago Tribune about his team’s regular season, “I thought we built on a lot of ups and downs throughout the season. That’s what great teams do. They take the challenge and they get better from it.”
The young coach is right, but for a competitor like Ollie, just being in the Championship obviously won’t be enough. He is going to look to apply some of that Calhoun-learned wisdom against Calipari and Kentucky to officially make his own imprint at his alma matter.