(The Sports Network) The Kentucky Wildcats and Connecticut Huskies have made their way to Houston this evening for a Final Four showdown from Reliant Stadium. Unlike the other half of the National Semifinals, this game pits a pair of historic programs against one another. The winner of this matchup will take on either Butler or VCU for the national title on Monday.
John Calipari is just the second coach in NCAA history (Rick Pitino) to take three teams to the Final Four, completing the feat with UMass (1996) and Memphis (2008). Despite losing a great deal of young talent to the NBA a year ago, the Wildcats persevered this season. The team only finished 10-6 in SEC play but has turned up the heat in the postseason, capturing the SEC Tournament crown, earning a four-seed in this event and winning the East Regional to advance to the 14th Final Four in school history and first in 12 years since winning the whole thing in 1998. The winningest program in NCAA history, UK is 105-45 in NCAA Tournament play and has won seven national championships. The team enters this game with a 10-game win streak in tow, but it hasn't all been easy. The Wildcats survived a scare from Princeton to open play in the NCAA Tournament, taking a 59-57 decision. That was followed by a 71-63 win over West Virginia. The Wildcats then went on to knock off the top two seeds in the region with a 62-60 victory over top-seeded Ohio State and 76-69 win over two-seed North Carolina.
Despite the relative youth on the roster, Calipari has been impressed with the maturity level.
"I've been fortunate; I've been blessed. The young kids that I've had have been good players and they've been good people. They listen, they respect each other, they respect the coaching staff, and it's been fun."
Jim Calhoun knows a thing or two about winning basketball as well. The Huskies are making their fourth Final Four appearance since 1999 (1999, 2004, 2009, 2011) and have their sights set on their third national title (1999, 2004). The Huskies struggled a bit in late February and early March and finished Big East play at a modest 9-9. However, like Kentucky, UConn really came together late, winning an unprecedented five games in five days to capture the Big East Tournament title, and followed that up by winning the West Regional with victories over Bucknell (81-52), Cincinnati (69-58), San Diego State (74-67) and finally Arizona (65-63). Under Calhoun, the Huskies are an impressive 58-17 in postseason play, including a 44-13 mark in the Big Dance.
Calhoun knows how special it is to be in the position the Huskies are in and takes that approach when handling his team.
"I consider post season play always to be a bonus, always to be a reward for a great season. It's not some death march that we have to win every single game. It's a great reward to be able to go places, win games, visit places, enjoy yourself. We'll go out to eat and enjoy the experience, when we first get there, of the Final Four. Then with about 48 hours to go or a little bit less, maybe 36, we'll turn our minds on getting ready to win a game. I think that's very important for us. If you don't enjoy this journey, there's something wrong with you. Quite frankly, what gray hair or the lack there of gives you is perspective. Perspective simply is: you don't know if you're ever going to get back ever again, any coach."
This is just the fourth meeting between these two successful programs, but second this season. The Huskies got the better of the Wildcats in the championship game of the Maui Invitational on November 24th, 84-67. With the win, UConn has taken a 2-1 series advantage.
A tremendous recruiter, Calipari is never short on young talent when it comes to the teams that he has led. This year is no different, as Kentucky has thrived thanks to the play of freshmen Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones. Both were tabbed All-SEC members, as well as Freshmen All-Americans. Knight has really taken center stage when the spotlight has been the brightest, averaging 20.4 ppg in 11 games against ranked opponents this season. He was named the East Region's Most Outstanding Player and enters this contest averaging 17.3 ppg. Jones has done most of his work down low. The 6-8 youngster led the SEC in rebounding and double-doubles this year and is currently averaging 15.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. A strong supporting cast comes in the form of freshman Doron Lamb (12.3 ppg), juniors Darius Miller (11.1 ppg) and DeAndre Liggins (8.8 ppg) and senior Josh Harrellson (7.6 ppg, 8.8 rpg). In the big win over the Tar Heels which propelled the Wildcats to the Final Four, it was once again Knight leading the charge, scoring a game-high 22 points, including five three-pointers. The other four starters also finished in double figures, with Harrellson and Liggins adding 12 points apiece and Miller and Jones chipping in with 11 each. The Wildcats shot .482 from the field overall, a number buoyed by a strong 12-22 showing from behind the arc (.545).
Knight echoes the sentiment of his team when talking about the Final Four and whether Kentucky has reached its goal.
"Not really. We are still just in the moment right now. We aren't satisfied with a Final Four. We know everyone is saying that they are happy about it, but we just want to keep going."
The Huskies are a young team in their own right, but the one glaring difference between them and the Wildcats is that UConn is led by one of the nation's premier veterans in junior guard Kemba Walker. The All-American was named the Bob Cousy Award winner, given annually to the top point guard in the country. There may not be a more electric player in the nation with all due respect to BYU's Jimmer Fredette. Walker is both a prolific scorer and deft distributor, averaging a hefty 23.9 points and 4.5 assists per game. Walker can also rebound (5.3 rpg) and plays tight defense (team-high 74 steals) as one of the most well-rounded backcourt players in recent memory. He is also a workhorse, logging a school-record 37.6 minutes per game. Of course, to get this far, Walker has needed help and that comes both inside and out. Perimeter support comes in the form of freshman guard Jeremy Lamb (11.1 ppg), while the dirty work down low is spearheaded by sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi (9.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg). Walker was tabbed the West Region's Most Outstanding Player and Lamb picked up All-Regional honors as well. Walker is netted 26.8 ppg in the tourney, while delivering on 91.7 percent from the free-throw line. Lamb has really elevated his game in this event, averaging 18.3 ppg and shooting a remarkable 73.3 percent from behind the arc.
This isn't Walker's first Final Four appearance and he thinks prior experience on the biggest of stages is an asset.
"I'm definitely more prepared for it. My freshmen year, it was tough. I'm not gonna lie, it was tough. It was just so much for me and the team overall. By the time the game came, I was exhausted. That's something I'll definitely be thinking about going into the game."
While both teams have shown chinks in the armor over the course of the season, they are clicking on all cylinders right now. This one may come down to the very end and their may not be two more clutch players in this event than Knight and Walker. Give the slight edge here to Walker, who has been here before.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Connecticut 75, Kentucky 72