En route to tonight’s NCAA Tournament championship game, Connecticut, under second-year coach Kevin Ollie, knocked off the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 seeds and then conquered the No. 1-ranked and favorite to win it all in Florida to get to face Kentucky for the title at AT&T Stadium outside of Dallas.
The Wildcats’ ride to the penultimate game was just as compelling and unlikely. Starting five freshman, UK, a No. 8 seed, knocked off Wichita State, defending-champion Louisville and Michigan to make the Final Four and then took out No. 2 Wisconsin–the last three wins, remarkably, all on last-second three-point jump shots by guard Aaron Harrison.
And so, there they are: two teams hardly anyone expected vying for college basketball’s top prize.
Kentucky will again play without one of its key assets. Willie Cauley-Stein, the sophomore center, called it ”heartbreaking” that he would have to watch the championship game from the bench. He hurt his right ankle in his NCAA tournament opener against Kansas State, played with pain in a victory over Wichita State and then aggravated the injury against Louisville.
He did not play in a regional final victory over Michigan, and was forced to be a cheerleader for a dramatic 74-73 victory over the Badgers on Saturday night.
The 7-foot sophomore said earlier in the week, ”Don’t count me out,” when asked whether he might play at some point during the Final Four. But even after he discarded the walking boot that doctors ordered him to wear, the ankle has never felt good enough to get on the floor.
”That’s the only thing I can really do is encourage the team to stay positive,” Cauley-Stein said. ”Even though I can’t play, you know, I still serve a purpose of uplifting people and staying in people’s ear and cheering and stuff like that.”
The matchup between small but dynamic UConn backcourt of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatwright against the larger and controlled twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison promises to be a battle worth watching and could determine who leaves as champions.