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Friday, April 27 University of Connecticut

Kevin Duffy: UConn vs. Kentucky, a well-earned matchup

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Sometimes the brackets fall perfectly, plowing clear a manageable path to that coveted Monday night. Sometimes the brackets don't do any favors, leaving predictable terrain ahead.

And then there's 2014: blizzard conditions, black ice, windshield-piercing hail, fire-coated power lines, and tire-slicing glass from fallen street lights.

So has been the proverbial road to Monday's national championship game for eighth-seeded Kentucky and seventh-seeded UConn.

"An absolute minefield," Kentucky coach John Calipari said late last week.

Of the 10 teams with the best pre-tournament odds in Vegas, seven were axed by UConn or Kentucky. That includes the three favorites: Florida, Michigan State and Louisville.

Together, UConn and Kentucky have combined to knock off eight of the top 12 teams in the final AP poll. Incredible.

For reference, the finalists of the past 10 NCAA tournaments have defeated, on average, 2.8 teams ranked in the top 12 heading into the title game. Look at UConn's run in 2011. As improbable and awe-inspiring as it was, those brackets opened up nicely. The Huskies had to go through only one top 15 team -- second-seeded San Diego State -- en route to Houston.

Heck, look at UConn in 2004. As dominant as that squad was, infinitely more talented than the 2014 Huskies, it went through a grand total of zero top 25 teams before it met Duke and Georgia Tech in the Final Four.

Now look at what Connecticut and Kentucky have done here. If two teams have ever totally earned national title berths, my God, it's got to be these guys.

"It's not a fluke that we are here," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said Sunday. "It's core values and it's principles. It's not a fluke."

To label this a fluke is simply the easy way of explaining the seemingly inexplicable: Kentucky was 2-8 during the regular season in games decided by five points or less, tied for the second-worst percentage in the country, according to ESPN. In the NCAA tournament, these young Wildcats have won four straight tournament games by such a margin.

And UConn? Eh, the Huskies have only won four NCAA tournament games in which they trailed by nine or more points. No biggie.

They've only beaten a No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4.

"Well, I don't think we were an eight seed and I don't think Connecticut was a seven seed," Calipari said, "and I don't think Pitt was a nine seed and I don't think Louisville was a four seed. But that's where they seeded us. Now, the problem with that is the other teams in those pockets get hurt."

The most hilarious committee miscue was UMass as a No. 6 and UConn as a No. 7. It seemed absurd when the brackets were released. Now it seems historically stupid.

Truthfully, the Huskies could have been a No. 5. Kentucky, maybe, could have been a No. 7. The Wildcats did lose 10 games, only two to non-tournament teams and three to No. 1 overall seed Florida. You can make a case that they were under-seeded at No. 8.

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You can also make a case that this particular batch of wildly talented 18 year olds on the Calipari assembly line massively underachieved -- remember the 40-0 preseason talk? -- and then figured things out at the perfect time to completely screw Wichita State.

Whenever he's asked about Kentucky's surge, Calipari points to a "tweak" he made a month back. He won't go into further detail with the media, and neither will his players.

"What coach did or tweaked or whatever you all are trying to figure out, I don't really think we would be here (without it)," said Kentucky freshman phenom Julius Randle. "It has kind of really brought us together and it has really made things click and gotten the ball rolling."

Randle, a 6-foot-9, 230-pound beast of a power forward, headlined Calipari's epic freshman class. But it's been Aaron Harrison who has KO'd Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin in succession. All from the left wing. All contested shots of increasing difficulty. He's been -- dare I say -- Shabazz Napier-like in the clutch.

"Like I always said, the biggest thing about that is if you're willing to take it," Napier said. "A lot of guys shy away from the moment, and he's not one of those guys."

No, Aaron Harrison is finally playing like the No. 1 ranked shooting guard in the class of 2013. The Wildcats are finally playing like the preseason No. 1, this decade's version of the Fab Five. It's funny: Randle was restless Saturday night, still fueled from the emotion of the Wisconsin win, so he watched the Fab Five documentary, detailing the 1991 Michigan freshmen class that forever changed college basketball.

Kentucky's route here began on the beautiful intersection of ridiculous talent and timely maturation, where John Calipari has kept his house these past few years. UConn's started on the corner of basketball smarts and pure guts, where Ollie resides.

After Saturday's exhilarating victory, John Calipari said he planned on saving UConn film for the morning. Plans changed.

"As I laid there, I said, `These guys are fighting so hard for me, I'm not going to do that. I'm going to do the tape now,''" Calipari said. "So I was up until about 3:30 and got up about 7 o'clock this morning. I asked them, `Did you guys get any sleep?'"

"You know, we're working on fumes now," Calipari continued. "It's not like we're not tired, but your adrenaline gets you through all this."

UConn and Kentucky have emerged through the minefield. Nobody did the dirty work for either.

kduffy@newstimes.com; @KevinRDuffy