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UConn-Kentucky: Two underdogs to battle in NCAA final

    Kentucky's Alex Poythress (22), left, with Julius Randle (30), during their game against Wisconsin on Saturday.

ARLINGTON, Texas >> Julius Randle was wide awake. Couldn’t sleep. Wired on adrenaline.

Kentucky’s powerful freshman forward had just survived another basketball near-death experience, and the juices were flowing.

Late Saturday night had given way to Sunday morning. One last day of film study, and practice was still hours away. A championship game showdown with Connecticut was set. And yet, rest wouldn’t come.

And so, Randle popped in a movie. Nonfiction.

He watched the ESPN documentary The Fab Five — the story of Michigan’s heralded recruiting class that turned college basketball on its ear.

On Monday night, Randle and his Kentucky teammates will have a chance to succeed where that Wolverines team failed. They can become the first all-freshmen starting lineup to win the NCAA championship.

"What they did was absolutely ridiculous, as far as the game, how they were trend-setters and stuff they did," Randle said. "You can use it as motivation. Anybody wants to use something that’s never been done in the history of the game as motivation. You can use it as motivation, but at the end of the day, we’re just focused on us."

That type of poise and perspective is rare for anyone seven months shy of his 20th birthday. But it’s also the reason Randle and teammates Andrew and Aaron Harrison, James Young and Dakari Johnson are on the verge of basketball history.

They arrived together in Lexington, Ky., last fall as a group of talented yet uneven players. They entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 8 seed and a very long shot to win it all. But over the past month, they’ve become a team — one that just might be the best in the nation.

Since the tournament began, the Wildcats (29-10) have won five games by a total of 18 points. The past two have both come down to a gutsy late three-pointer by Aaron Harrison — each from nearly the identical spot on the floor.

One last obstacle remains: seventh-seeded Connecticut (31-8), whose appearance in Monday’s final is nearly as unlikely.

This is a matchup of Cinderella powerhouses, if that makes sense. Each has won at least three national titles. But both were largely disappointments in the 2013-14 regular season, only to flourish in March and April.

Remarkably, the marquee programs have met just four times — and twice in one season (2010-11). They last tangled in the Final Four that season, when the Huskies nipped the Wildcats 56-55 en route to the throne.

Shabazz Napier and Niels Giffey, now seniors, were freshmen on that UConn team. Randle and his fellow Kentucky starters, meanwhile, were sophomores in high school.

And unlike that Michigan group that lost in the title game in 1992 and ’93, this will likely be the only shot this collection of Wildcats will get. The NBA beckons for several, Randle most notably.

Not everyone is a fan of Kentucky’s NBA prospect-staging-ground M.O., of course. Most specifically: the NCAA and much of its membership. NCAA president Mark Emmert reiterated his opposition to the one-and-done philosophy Sunday.

Bob Bowlsby, the commissioner of the Big 12 Conference, took it a step further. He chastised the NFL and NBA for not creating a farm system like the one used by Major League Baseball. The basketball and football systems force teens into school who have little interest in being there. He went so far as to call those leagues "irresponsible."

"My business, what I do, is to try to prepare young people for a future," said Michael Drake, the incoming president at Ohio State. "We have a four-year degree because we believe it takes that much time to mature and to get those life skills to go out and have the 60 years that follow college and to be able to be a contributing member and leader in your society and community."

Of course, the era of elite players staying in school for four years is long gone — with rare exceptions. Doug McDermott, this year’s Wooden Award winner as national player of the year, will graduate in May.

McDermott was never a sure-fire lottery pick, however, and even after scoring the fifth-most points in college basketball history, he could fall out of the top 10.

Randle, meanwhile, has been a college student for roughly seven months — and is just a few more away from millions of guaranteed NBA dollars. Assuming as all do that Randle goes pro (which could happen as soon as Tuesday), it’s hard to see how he makes it past the fifth overall pick.

And so as long as the system is in place, Calipari seems intent on exploiting it. He coaches an astounding seven McDonald’s All-Americans — with three more on the way. The Huskies, meanwhile, have none.

"We all play the game of basketball to compete against the best," Napier said with a shrug. "This is one of them games."

Added Huskies coach Kevin Ollie: "It’s not a fluke that we’re here."

Referring to his team, he continued: "They’re made for more. They’re made for this championship game."

And when asked how UConn would respond if the Huskies are in the same situation that Wisconsin was late Saturday — up by 2, but needing to get a stop with the ball in Aaron Harrison’s hands — Ollie didn’t flinch.

"Hopefully, it comes down to that," he said, "and, hopefully, we get one more stop to win the game and to win a national championship."

Sounds like something out of a movie.

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