ARLINGTON, Texas — With each step along the route to the mountaintop, UConn's opponent has been built up.
St Joseph's? The Hawks were hot, and the Huskies were not.
Villanova? The No. 2 seed.
Iowa State? Too quick.
Michigan State? Too big and physical.
Florida? Something about a winning streak, wasn't there?
Now the Huskies have one more behemoth — Kentucky — that must be cut down to size if they are to emerge national champions.
"All the trials and tribulations we've been through have prepared us for this moment," UConn's Phil Nolan said.
"If people don't believe in us, we don't want them to believe now," freshman Terrence Samuel said Sunday. "'Cause them not believing in us is helping us win."
What makes Kentucky, UConn's opponent in the national championship game Monday night at AT&T Stadium at 9:10 p.m., different is that it carries the underdog slingshot as well. The Wildcats began the season ranked No.1, then lost 10 games — three times to Florida — and fell out of the Top 25. They made the NCAA Tournament as a No. 8 seed and, like UConn (31-8), a No. 7 seed, had to run a gantlet of higher seeds to reach the final, winning four games in a row by margins of five points or fewer.
"It's amazing to be here," said Julius Randle, one of five freshmen to start for the Wildcats. "All we've been through, the way we came together, you just can't really put it into words."
The Wildcats (29-10) have proved that they were highly touted for a reason. And their recruiting class is considered one of the best in a long time for a reason. Aaron Harrison, who, with twin brother Andrew, was one of the prize recruiting coups, has hit a series of clutch shots to get Kentucky here.
"The biggest thing is, he's not afraid to miss," coach John Calipari said.
UConn and Kentucky met in the semifinals in 2011, the Huskies winning on the way to their third championship. Now they go for their fourth title since 1999 as Kentucky, which has won eight championships, goes for its second in three years, again starting five freshmen.
The Huskies' rely on upperclassmen — seniors Shabazz Napier and Niels Giffey and juniors Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels — in their starting lineup.
"We want to do what [the 2011] team did, but we want to go on our own path," Napier said. "So far, so good. When we were freshmen, the biggest thing guys said was, take your chances, take your opportunity now, because you don't know when you're coming back. For us to be back here now, it's so surreal."
Few opponents that UConn has played had the size and speed that the Wildcats have, starting with the Harrisons, both 6 feet 6, in the backcourt.
"They've got great athletes," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "They use their quickness, their speed, their jumping ability to get in the paint. So we want to locate, get back and keep them in front of us, play solid defense. We want to limit the penetration and make them shoot over the top."
"They're big guards, God blessed them with size," said Boatright, who is barely 6 feet. "They try to take advantage of little guys like us. I'm just going to try to make them as uncomfortable as possible."
The Huskies' defense has been superb throughout the tournament as Ollie and his staff have come up with one effective game plan after another, and their experienced players have been able to execute.
"Kevin is genuine, loyal and a great coach," said Calipari, who was an assistant coach with the 76ers when Ollie played in Philadelphia. "You know what he was doing when he was playing? He was coaching. He was an unbelievable student of the game then, and he was teaching me when I was in Philly."
What makes Kentucky difficult to gauge, however, is that they are so young and talented. Its players are improving quickly. For instance, Andrew Harrison has relatively bad assists-to-turnovers numbers, 154 to 105, and the Wildcats have 50 more turnovers than opponents. But they had only four turnovers against Wisconsin in the semifinal.
"We all play the game of basketball to compete against the best," Napier said. "This is one of those games. They worked hard to get here, we did, too."Copyright © 2015, CT Now