The two teams, separated by 29 years, could not be more different. The Kentucky Wildcats were the preseason number one team and basically underachieved for thirty games before catching fire in the SEC Tournament. The Villanova Wildcats were a true Cinderella who had to face the mighty Georgetown Hoyas in the 1985 NCAA Championship in ironically, Rupp Arena.
Kentucky is hardly your standard eight seed. Perfection was expected of these Wildcats from Day One and that perfect streak lasted all of two games. The Villanova Wildcats needed a near perfect game to beat the Hoyas and they are about as protective of that #8 seed champion status as the 1972 Miami Dolphins are of their perfect season.
Twenty-nine years ago, eighth-seeded Villanova upset Georgetown in what remains the NCAA tournament’s quintessential Cinderella moment. No national champion since has been seeded eighth or lower.
Villanova made history in 1985 when it unseated No. 1 seed Georgetown in Lexington, Ky. The Wildcats remain the highest seed to cut down the nets.
Some of the Villanova players, who make up that group-text tradition, would like to keep it that way.
“They’re like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t want the streak to be broken,’” said Ed Pinckney, the most outstanding player from the 1985 Final Four. “We do have a couple of Mercury Morrises [the outspoken member of the 1972 Miami Dolphins' undefeated team] on our team.”
The angst among the old Villanova guard is a little higher this weekend. Another No. 8 seed is playing for a national title.
And it is not just any No. 8 seed.
It’s the University of Kentucky, home to eight national championships and the most wins in NCAA history.
“The only thing we have in common is we’re both Wildcats,” Pinckney said.
Seriously, the only reason Kentucky is a No. 8 seed is because the Wildcats underachieved during the regular season. Were it not for bizarre losses to Arkansas and South Carolina, Kentucky easily would have moved up the seed list. Even with those losses, the Cats probably should have been higher.
They look about as much like Cinderella (pre-fairy-princess intervention) as Heidi Klum.
Tonight’s game is full of youth as it is yet another debate in the “youth versus experience” saga and to be honest, I think John Calipari is more than OK with that. I think that Calipari does not think starting five freshman is a brave thing. He is just going with his best lineup. There are some that would consider sending five freshmen into the NCAA championship game courageous and one of the greatest feats in sports.
But winning with a young coach should never be as significant as winning college championships with teenagers.
I realize that the school’s rich basketball history — not to mention the smug demeanor of its head coach — will prevent Kentucky from ever being regarded as a true underdog tale.
And yet the courage of sending five freshmen onto the court to do a man’s job should be regarded as one of the great all-time achievements in sports. It doesn’t even matter that John Calipari manages to cherry-pick the best of the nation’s recruiting classes year after year.
In sports — hell, in life — experience counts.
Maybe once in awhile you tackle a new golf course and, unfamiliar with the trouble spots, you do a fair job of conquering it — whatever that might mean (it could be breaking 90). That is the exception. It is not the rule, and it should never be something that is expected to happen.
In sports, particularly when you are talking about college athletes, age matters.
Any discussion of baseball prospects — say, the Rangers’ Jurickson Profar last year or Rougned Odor this year — tends to go something along the lines of “Well, he was playing Double-A at 19 against players that are 20 and 21.”
Consider what Kentucky’s starting five is doing here Monday night.
The Harrison twins of Richmond, Texas, turned 19 just before the start of the season (October). Plano’s Julius Randle — the potential instant lottery pick of the group — turned 19 in November. Center Dakari Johnson and wingman James Young, both huge in the win over Wisconsin, are 18.
The leaders of the UConn team that rallied past a senior-laden Florida squad are junior guard Ryan Boatright, senior guard Shabazz Napier and junior forward DeAndre Daniels.
Boatright turns 22 in December. Daniels turns 22 next week. Napier will be 23 in July.
These disparities are enormous, the kind of thing that would be frightening if the younger players had anything other than Kentucky emblazoned across their chests.
Kentucky comes into tonight’s game as the favorite over the Huskies. In order to cut down the nets, Mike DeCourcy has three things that Kentucky must do. I actually happen to think this one is the biggest key.
3. Take no shortcuts
As good as the Wisconsin Badgers are, when UK managed a 15-0 run early in the second half that really should have been their effective end. “We’re not real good up 10,” coach John Calipari said, trying to joke away the issue. And it is an issue.
It’s especially so for point guard Andrew Harrison. He spent much of the year with no grip at all on the games he was supposed to be commanding; now it tends to come and go. Nobody truly plays 40 great minutes in any game, but Kentucky’s best stretches are shorter than most quality teams. They’re also better, and they’ll trade hoops with anyone until they get the desired result, which is why they’re still competing in this tournament.
But even with four consecutive late-game escapes, it would be unwise to enter that territory a fifth time. Because none of the previous opponents had a late-game artist quite as dangerous as UConn’s Shabazz Napier.