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Monday, April 7, 2014

Path Less Traveled

The 8th seeded Kentucky Wildcats and the 7th seeded Connecticut Huskies will meet tonight in Arlington, Texas to decide the 2014 NCAA Men’s Basketball National Champion. UConn defeated the #1 seed Florida Gators in Saturday’s National Semifinal. Kentucky defeated #2 seed Wisconsin later that night. The other #1 and #2 seeds had long since been eliminated from the Final Four discussion. Indeed, a seed is nothing but a number.

Aaron Harrison has been an assassin in this year’s Big Dance. 1

Kentucky was the preseason #1 ranked team. They narrowly lost the SEC Tournament Championship Game to Florida, the #1 team in the country at that time. They were seeded 8th in the Midwest Region.

It sounds outrageous on its face until considering that the Region included the likes of defending National Champion Louisville, the number five team in the country at the end of the regular season, yet the fourth seed in the region. How is this possible? Undefeated Wichita State was the #1 seed in the bracket. Who else was in the Midwest region? Nobody special, just 2013 National Runner-Up Michigan and regular Final Four participant Duke, both 26-8 during the regular season.

Indeed, one could look at the Midwest Region and quickly mistakenly assume that the Big Dance shrunk from 68 teams down to 18. That was the gauntlet that the Wildcats ran. It didn’t kill them; it just made them stronger.

Kentucky was the last team cheering when the dust settled. 2


Connecticut was the 7th seed in the East Region. The seedings and pairings in that bracket made little sense to me at the start of the tournament. I was not the least bit surprised that both of the top two seeds failed to reach the Regional Finals.

I was stunned that Connecticut, at team with an attacking defense and a gifted point guard, but few shooters, was the team to advance to the Final Four from this region. From the Sweet Sixteen round on, I picked against Connecticut in each game. All three times, I was wrong.

Connecticut is a team with a Head Coach in Kevin Ollie who followed a legendary coach, Jim Calhoun, at a program with eligibility issues. In only his second season, Ollie is a win away from a National Championship. In rubbing out coaches Jay Wright of Villanova, Fred Hoiberg of Iowa State, Tom Izzo of Michigan State, and Billy Donovan of Florida – all successful coaches with either rising stars or past championships – Ollie let his team do the talking for him on the court.

Ollie has outcoached the field while his front court has out-physicaled every tournament opponent. His senior point guard, Shabazz Napier, has out manned everyone in his way. While observers may asked themselves, “How did this happen?”, Ollie’s Huskies simply stick with the coach’s process and make it happen.

Connecticut beat Florida in the regular season, too, with a buzzer beating bucket. They didn’t cut it so close on Saturday.  3


I’m 0-3 picking against UConn in this tournament. I’m willing to risk going 0-4. Kentucky is simply too good with too much talent, peaking too rapidly, and tested (while passing the tests) too thoroughly to lose this game tonight. A close game favors Kentucky and I don’t think Connecticut or any team is capable of running away from the Wildcats.

On the other hand, Connecticut has not only won, but put distance between themselves and their tournament foes, all but one of whom was a higher seed. Connecticut has the advantage at point guard. On paper, Kentucky would appear to have the advantage in coaching with John Calipari. However, Coach Ollie has shown us that we, the public, don’t know what his ceiling is. Expect a title game to be as dramatic as the games that led to it and brought these two teams together this evening.

Advantage: Kentucky

Coach Ollie, right, is making a lot of folks proud in the Tri-State area. 4
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