UConn-Kentucky title game matchup not as surprising as it seems
That sentence, sure to have been repeated a million times between the end of Saturday's national semifinals and Monday's title game tipoff, should come with a disclaimer, which is: It's not crazy that those teams arrived here. But it is crazy how their respective seasons and this 2014 tournament unfolded. That's the thing: We got an expected matchup when we least expected it.
This tournament featured a record number of overtime games, including four on the first day and five in the round of 64. Among the winners of those games was UConn, which needed an extra period to survive St. Joseph's.
Few picked the Huskies from the outset, not after they lost twice to Southern Methodist this season, not after they missed last year's tournament due to poor academic standing. A few more picked the Wildcats, based on NBA-roster-type talent alone that made them the No. 1 team in the country in the preseason. They, too, missed the NCAAs last season, due to poor on-court performance that culminated in a first round NIT defeat. Arkansas beat Kentucky twice this season. Arkansas! South Carolina also topped the Wildcats. So did Florida, three times.
So here we are with a matchup featuring the highest combined seed total in national championship game history. The previous high, set by Connecticut and Butler, was 11, in 2011. This also marks the first time two teams that did not dance the previous season made it to the title game since 1966.
That aside, it's not that surprising that these are the last two teams standing. The juggernaut basketball program known as Big Blue has won 2,140 games, the most in college basketball history, and eight national titles. Cinderella it is not. Connecticut, meanwhile, can boast of three national titles, all since 1999. These two programs account for two of the last three.
What a seven vs. eight really reveals is threefold: these teams feature two of the nation's best and most talented backcourts; parity reigns again this season and for the foreseeable future; and the NCAA tournament selection committee botched this year's seedings -- badly.
This final is also an embodiment of modern college basketball. Here's Kentucky, with its latest crop of NBA-bound freshman on a one-year layover before they turn professional. Here's Connecticut, fresh off academic postseason probation. Here are a bunch of "student athletes" playing in front of 75,000-plus paying customers, filling the NCAA's coffers with cash, not in class or studying or thinking about school on a Monday night. Soon, most of if not all of Kentucky's starting lineup will be preparing for the NBA, not biology or sociology or anything like that.
Here's Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, Connecticut's guard tandem who disrupted opposing offenses all the way to the title game by disregarding personal space on defense. Here's Julius Randle and the Harrison twins and James Young and so many young stars that the Wildcats could lose a key player like backup center Willie Cauley-Stein to injury in the Sweet 16 and still make it to the final. Here's a title game high in both seeds and anticipation.
"I don't think we were an eight seed," John Calipari, Kentucky's one-and-done maestro, said Sunday, throwing a bucket of cold water on the surprise storyline.
He's right, by the way. If anyone should be upset with Kentucky's seeding, it should be Wichita State. The Shockers finished the regular season undefeated. Their reward? The so-called Region of Death, and a date with Kentucky in the third round (which is really the second round but is so named because the NCAA needed four extra play-in games for additional revenue). Down went the Shockers, which really wasn't all that shocking. Louisville, the No. 4 seed in the Midwest, was next. Then No. 2 Michigan. Then Wisconsin, another 2-seed, in the Final Four. The Wildcats dismantled four perceived title contenders by a total of 11 points. "They didn't screw us," said Cauley-Stein, who will not play against Connecticut tonight. "They screwed the people ahead of us."
UConn as a No. 7 seed made more sense, what with the Huskies in the brand-new American Athletic Conference, their season marred by losses to Stanford and Houston and an 81-48 spanking at the hands of Louisville. And yet, the Huskies mirrored their title game opponent in that they coalesced at the right time. They earned their way to the title tilt, just like Kentucky did, with victories over Villanova, Iowa State and Michigan State -- the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 seeds, respectively, in the East region -- and then a win over No. 1 overall seed Florida in the Final Four. The Gators and the Spartans were trendy championship picks.
Connecticut players cannot help but think back to March 20, to their second-round game, which was their first contest of the tournament (thanks NCAA!), against St. Joe's. If any one game typified how Kentucky and Connecticut arrived here, this was it.
Tyler Olander, a senior forward for the Huskies, said St. Joe's presented a tough matchup stylistically for UConn. St. Joe's ran its offense through its post players, found shooters open on the wings, grabbed weak-side rebounds with ease. The game went into overtime, and Connecticut went into its default late-game mode -- give the ball to Napier, let him work. He did, and UConn held on, 89-81, to move into the next round. Few would have been surprised if they had fallen there. That's college basketball, both in recent seasons but even more in this one.
"There's a rise in competition," Olander said. "I don't think of mid-majors as mid-majors anymore. The talent is more spread out. So many teams are good. So many players leave early. There are no guarantees in this tournament."
Except one: somebody has to win it.