By Chris Dufresne Los Angeles Times
ARLINGTON, Texas — Tonight’s NCAA championship game at AT&T Stadium sets up as a matchup of over-achieving seedlings.
If you didn’t know the history you’d say it was nice to see the “little guys” finally breaking through the plexiglass backboard.
This No. 15 combination platter is the highest total number to play for the title since the NCAA started seeding in 1979.
Poor old No. 7 Connecticut hasn’t won an NCAA title since 2011 and luckless No 8 Kentucky hasn’t hoisted a banner since 2012.
Connecticut and Kentucky are actually bluer-blooded than Tommy Lasorda. They are Cinder-fellas, not Cinderellas.
The NCAA selection committee (and most bracket pickers in America) may be surprised these schools reached the final game but, trust us, no one in Storrs or Lexington considers this an upset.
Louisville beat Connecticut three times this year and Florida defeated Kentucky three times, but what does that matter now?
Connecticut just needed some time to develop and Kentucky just needed to grow up.
“I thought we just had too many competitors on this team just to let our season slide,” Kentucky freshman forward Julius Randle said Sunday.
Connecticut is in today’s final tip because other players, particularly forward DeAndre Daniels, have stepped up in support of star guard Shabazz Napier.
Kentucky is 40 minutes from a net cut because its vaunted freshman class started to coalesce around the time of Selection Sunday.
Kentucky is riding one of the hottest hands in NCAA history in freshman guard Aaron Harrison, who has hit the game-winning shot in the Wildcats’ last three wins.
“Man, he’s a clutch player,” Napier, a clutch player himself, said of Harrison. “Hopefully it doesn’t come down to his shot.”
This is a game of forwards and guards but also a game of shadows.
Hovering over Kentucky is the ghost of Adolph Rupp and the unyielding expectations the “Baron of the Bluegrass” left behind.
Let’s face it: Kentucky is hell-bent on dislodging UCLA as the name brand of the NCAA tournament and the Wildcats are one win from creeping to within two titles of the Bruins’ record 11.
Kentucky coach John Calipari, basically a gun for hire, feels the burden from sunrise to sunset.
He already led Kentucky to its eighth national title, in 2012, and that honeymoon lasted until he had the gall to miss last year’s tournament.
Calipari’s portrait is the opposite of Dorian Gray. He looks in the mirror and sees a rapidly aging 45-year-old.
Calipari is literally limping, in pain, through this tournament. He’s had one hip replacement and says he needs another.
He said anyone who’s had hip problems would understand.
“You don’t sleep as good, you don’t get the eight hours, you’re waking up,” Calipari said.
But what’s really been keeping him up at night is the burden he inherited since being named coach on April 1, 2009.
“The job at Kentucky ages you,” Calipari said, “it’s not my hip. I look at the press conference I had five years ago, I didn’t look like this. It’s not my hip.”
Lurking over Connecticut’s locker room is the aura of Jim Calhoun, who retired in 2012 after leading the Huskies to three national championships in 26 seasons.
Nagging injuries, bouts with cancer and advancing age forced Calhoun to retire before he wanted to go. The NCAA probably played a part when it hit Connecticut with a postseason ban for failure to meet academic standards.
Calhoun was lucky enough that Kevin Ollie, one of his own, was chosen as his successor. Ollie played at Connecticut and returned to Calhoun’s assistant side after a 13-year NBA career.
This is Ollie’s team now, but these are Calhoun’s recruits. Calhoun has been on the fringes, watching with paternal admiration.
He sits behind the Huskies’ bench during games, close enough to feel the joy but far enough to keep his professional distance.
“Coach Calhoun is still beside me,” Ollie said this week. “He’s in front of me, he’s behind me.”
Calhoun retired for health reasons but, at 71, is feeling good to coach again even though he probably won’t.
His legacy now spins forward, vicariously, through one of his former pupils.
Calhoun can’t bring himself to cheer for Connecticut because he is still dissecting games as a coach.
He and Ollie have watched Daniels, a talented but inconsistent forward become a difference maker in the tournament.
Daniels, a lanky 6-foot-8 junior, has loosened up defenses with his inside-out skills. Daniels is averaging 17.6 points and 7.4 rebounds in five tournament games after averaging 13.2 and 6.0 in the regular season.
“When he’s a ball hunter, he scores, because he’s that talented,” Ollie said.
Daniels said he ate chicken tacos after Saturday’s game and then spent a restless night.
“Couldn’t really sleep,” he said. “Was tossing and turning all night just thinking about Monday.”
He won’t have to wait much longer. Kentucky is 40 minutes from its ninth NCAA title and Connecticut is 40 minutes from its fourth.
You know, just a couple of middle-seeded mid-majors trying to find their way in the basketball world.