One more win.
One more victory and the Kentucky basketball team (29-10) will have either shocked the country or, in the opinion of casual fans who ignored the Wildcats’ well-documented struggles this season, just completed exactly what was expected of the team last summer.
How did the Wildcats reach the precipice of yet another national title after the season was seemingly lost just five weeks ago?
UK head coach John Calipari promised the implementation of a “tweak” to a distraught fan base before the SEC Tournament. At the time, Wildcat fans likely believed it was just an old sales trick by one of the greatest salesman in the history of college basketball.
College basketball fans may never know exactly what this tweak was or how it is working, but it is reflective of Calipari’s unheralded ability to put the needs of the players first. Calipari’s offense was clearly inefficient and Calipari was willing to adjust it for the betterment of the team, even with the SEC Tournament just three days away. Three weeks later, the enigmatic tweak has resulted in the team’s best play all season.
The Wildcats have also defied the odds and the tournament selection committee because of an undeniable fact about one particular freshman.
Aaron Harrison is the most clutch player in the history of the NCAA Tournament.
Statements like this are usually made far too nonchalantly and in-the-moment with seemingly no perspective on the magnificent history of college basketball. Detractors of this proclamation may attempt to bolster the argument with what some may view as logical arguments.
Harrison is just a freshman. This is just his first (and possibly last) NCAA Tournament appearance. Clutch NCAA Tournament players are not defined by age or class. Lorenzo Charles, the man who miraculously caught Dereck Whittenburg’s errant three-pointer and slammed it home at the buzzer in the 1983 NCAA Championship game, was a sophomore.
“What about Laettner and ‘The Shot’?”
Other argue the most infamous player in the history of the tournament (to the chagrin of Wildcat fans) is Christian Laettner. Yes, Laettner played flawlessly and did not miss a shot in the 1992 victory over Kentucky, including the final attempt of the game with just two seconds remaining, but the fact remains: it was just one shot.
The shot may mean Laettner may never be able to show his face in the state of Kentucky, but it does not mean he is the most clutch player in the history of the tournament. What separates Aaron Harrison’s performance from the numerous single-game performances of the past is staggering.
Harrison’s miraculous late-game performance has come in three consecutive games.
No player has ever single-handedly clinched the game in the same fashion three times in a row, let alone done so as a member of an eight-seed team in the midst of the toughest run in the history of the tournament.
Wildcat fans likely feel as if watching the NCAA Tournament is a reoccurring dream. In three games in a row, Harrison has fearlessly drained a three-point shot in the final seconds. In each of the last two games, Aaron Harrison received a pass from twin brother Andrew on the left wing and hoisted the shot as Andrew and the other thousand spectators stared in anticipation.
“Okay, Aaron Harrison may have made a game-winning three in three consecutive games, but none of those shots clinched the title.”
No, none of Harrison’s game-winning 3’s ended the Wildcats’ season with a win, but each one of those three pointers could have cemented Harrison’s clutch legacy in tournament history. Who says Harrison will not ice the championship game once again with another fade-a-way three-pointer tonight?
For the sheer sake of protecting nervous Wildcat fans’ already-rapidly beating hearts, the Wildcats will hopefully not need another last-second shot for the win.
But the likelihood that this game will be similar to the past four is incredibly high. Connecticut (31-8) just defeated Florida for the second time this season to advance to the championship game. Florida was a nightmare for the Wildcats, who were unable to defeat the Gators in any of the three matchups.
Florida was Kentucky’s kryptonite and Louisville was Connecticut’s. Connecticut fell to Louisville by 33 points earlier in the season, while Kentucky defeated the Cardinals twice, including in the Sweet 16. However, as this fabled tournament often proves, the “who beat who” factor matters little.
Many analysts have compared Shabazz Napier’s play to that of former teammate Kemba Walker, who seemingly single-handedly carried Connecticut to the national title in 2011. Napier does lead the team in points, assists, steals, rebounds and three-pointers made, but the players surrounding Napier are the reason the Huskies are in this championship game.
6-foot-nine junior forward Deandre Daniels is an absolute force in the low post and is coming off a 20-point, 10-rebound performance against Florida in the National Semi-final game.
Fellow junior Ryan Boatright is an excellent scorer who compliments Napier perfectly on the perimeter. Boatright and Napier terrorized Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin with such ease that it was easy to forget how masterfully Wilbekin led the Gators in the tournament.
Senior Niels Giffey is a crucial player for Connecticut, with a role similar to UK’s Alex Poythress. Giffey will likely win the title of “most annoying player” in the minds of Kentucky fans because of Giffey’s timely, accurate three-point shooting and scrappy play.
Connecticut will feature a decent group off the bench tonight, but do not be surprised if the bulk of the offensive production does not come from players not named Napier, Boatright or Daniels.
Kentucky’s unprecedented run has spurred the “team of destiny” debate, but Connecticut has also valiantly defied the odds. Tonight the highest combined seeds to ever meet in the national championship game will capture the tournament’s biggest stage.
It is the season finale of the March Madness television show.
There is no need for a spoiler alert for the finale in this column, because just like the coaches, players, fans, producers and everyone else involved in the production of this game, I have no idea who will enjoy the rain of confetti and who will despite it tonight.
The only sure thing is that Kentucky’s magical, unlikely journey is coming to an end and win or lose, Wildcat fans have been spoiled with greatness yet again.
Kentucky 75 Connecticut 71.