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UConn, Kentucky face each other in in unlikely NCAA title game

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Connecticut and Kentucky couldn’t have met in last year’s championship game and few people gave them a chance to be in this year’s.

Seventh-seeded Connecticut and eighth-seeded Kentucky meet tonight in one of the unlikeliest NCAA championship games ever.

Neither was around in last year’s postseason — Connecticut because of a tournament ban over academic issues; Kentucky because it didn’t make the field. And neither looked like national title contenders at times this season.

Kentucky (29-10) and its outstanding freshmen went from preseason No. 1 to out of the rankings after some bad losses. And Connecticut (31-8) was not a popular postseason pick after finishing tied for third in the American Athletic Conference with multiple losses to Louisville and SMU.

In the tournament, the Huskies have stopped some of the country’s top guards and put themselves in position for their fourth national championship, the previous three under Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun.

“Hopefully we have an opportunity to fall back on our defense,” second-year coach Kevin Ollie said. “We have been doing that the whole year.”

If Kentucky has a chance to win in the final minute, that defense better pay attention to guard Aaron Harrison, one of five freshmen starters.

He has hit huge 3-pointers in the Wildcats’ last three games. Harrison rattled in a 26-footer with 5.7 seconds to go in the 74-73 win over Wisconsin in the semifinals. He made almost the exact same shot with 2.3 seconds left against Michigan for a 75-72 win that sent the Wildcats to the Final Four. Against Louisville, he hit a 3 with 39 seconds left to give Kentucky the lead for good in a 74-69.

“The biggest thing is he’s not afraid to miss,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “He’s OK with it. If you’re going to make those kind of shots, you absolutely cannot be afraid to miss them.”

These two programs have combined to win six of the last 18 NCAA titles.

“Playing against Connecticut, I mean, I’m just happy we’re still playing,” Calipari said.

Neither program could say that last year.

Connecticut was banned from the postseason after failing to meet NCAA academic standard. It had practice limitations and lost a scholarship. The players could have transferred but didn’t. The Huskies finished 20-10 in Ollie’s first year. They took the hit and made it back to the biggest stage.

“It’s actually very impressive,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said Sunday. “To see that team hold together. I think it’s a commitment to those young men on that team that hung together.”

The leader of the group is All-American Shabazz Napier who leads the team in almost every statistical category. He’s the guy who makes the big shot or big pass. Fellow guard Ryan Boatright has taken some of the spotlight recently for his defensive performances against the likes of Keith Appling of Michigan State and Scottie Wilbekin of Florida.

“Defense is the biggest thing for me. The points will come,” Boatright said.

Kentucky is playing its best basketball lately, led by big man Julius Randle and the Harrison twins.

This is Calipari’s fourth Final Four, but the first two — Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008 — were vacated over NCAA rules violations.

Now the Wildcats are on an 11-game winning streak in the NCAA tournament and they are one win from a ninth national championship for Kentucky.

1-and-Done rule needs fixing

NCAA officials and Calipari at least agree on something: The one-and-done rule in college basketball needs to be revised.

NCAA president Mark Emmert said during his annual news conference that he is in “vocal opposition” to the rule established by the NBA and its union that requires players be at least one year removed from high school before declaring for the NBA draft.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby went further, saying “the NFL and NBA have been irresponsible in not providing other legitimate opportunities for kids that really don’t want to go to college.”

Calipari has said he favors a two-year period before players can declare for the NBA draft, even though his 2012 title team had three one-and-done players, and the team that he’ll put on the floor in Monday night’s national title game against UConn could have even more.

“As everyone knows here, this is enshrined in the labor agreement between the NBA and the NBA players, and not a rule that we have control over,” said Emmert, who has spoken out against it in the past. “I think everybody here knows my position on it.”

The age restrictions were put in place in 2005, two years after LeBron James joined players such as Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant on the none-and-done path to the NBA. While those players succeeded, many other high schoolers declared for the draft and struggled.

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