It's UK's Fab Five vs. Connecticut for college basketball's title
Kentucky finished six games back of Florida in the SEC while Connecticut finished in a three-way tie for third in the American Athletic Conference. And one of them is about to be a national champion.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- A team that was unranked in the Associated Press poll three weeks ago is now favored to win college basketball's national championship. So, yeah, the first 66 games of this NCAA Tournament have been as unpredictable as they've been fun.
Only one No. 1 seed made the Final Four.
A No. 7 seed and a No. 8 seed advanced to the title game.
And under different circumstances I might tell you that it's disappointing to end up in this situation, you know, without two schools that spent the past five months establishing themselves as powers. But does this feel disappointing to you? Because it doesn't feel disappointing to me. Again, it's not the title game I anticipated, and it's almost certainly not the title game you anticipated. But it's still two national brands led by coaching stars and great individual players, and that's a pretty awesome random thing to stumble into.
So what's on tap for Monday night?
Let's do a National Championship Game Look Ahead ...
How Kentucky got here: The Wildcats started the season ranked No. 1 in the AP poll and with dreams of going 40-0. Then they lost the third game on their schedule (to Michigan State), the ninth game on their schedule (to Baylor), and the 11th game on their schedule (to North Carolina) before entering SEC play with a 10-3 record. UK finished 12-6 in the SEC with losses to Florida (twice), Arkansas (twice), LSU and South Carolina, and the Wildcats fell out of the AP poll on March 10, six days before they lost to Florida for a third time in the SEC tournament title game. Consequently, UK was projected by oddsmakers to beat Kansas State in the Round of 64 and lose in the Round of 32 to top-seeded Wichita State. But the Wildcats handled KSU comfortably and then edged (in order) Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin by an average of 2.8 points, thanks, in part, to three final-minute 3-pointers in three different games from freshman Aaron Harrison, who has developed a reputation as the nation's clutchiest clutch player. "He's got some hangers," said Kentucky sophomore Alex Poythress. "He's got the biggest balls I've seen."
How Connecticut got here: The Huskies started the season ranked No. 18 in the AP poll, rose to 10th after a 9-0 start but fell out completely on Jan. 6 following consecutive losses to Houston and SMU. UConn ended up finishing 12-6 in the American Athletic Conference after closing the regular season with an 81-48 loss to Louisville, and Kevin Ollie's team then lost to Louisville for a third time in the AAC tournament title game, meaning 37.5 percent of UConn's losses have come to Louisville. But I digress. The Huskies opened this NCAA Tournament as a favorite over Saint Joseph's and edged the Hawks in overtime. And they then topped three teams seeded higher than them (Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State) before upsetting top-ranked Florida for the second time in Saturday's national semifinals. "We didn't have an easy road to get here," said UConn junior Ryan Boatright. "But we have the pride and heart to want to be successful."
Title game by the numbers
0: That's the number of McDonald's All-Americans on UConn's roster, which proves you don't necessarily have to sign elite prospects to reach this point. On the other hand, Kentucky has seven McDonald's All-Americans, six of whom are freshmen. So the McDonald's All-American thing works, too, I guess.
4: That's the number of consecutive games Kentucky has won despite not leading at the half. UK was down 37-31 at the half to Wichita State, down 34-31 to Louisville, tied 37-37 vs. Michigan and down 40-36 to Wisconsin.
8: That's the number of games UConn has won when DeAndre Daniels scores at least 18 points. The Huskies have not lost when the junior forward scores at least 18 points.
15: That's the number you get when you add the seven next to Connecticut's name and the eight next to Kentucky's name, which makes this the highest combined seed total in national championship game history.
18: That's how many wins John Calipari has in the NCAA Tournament since taking over the UK program before the 2009-10 season. He has only lost twice in this event in the past five years -- to West Virginia in the 2010 Elite Eight and to UConn in the 2011 Final Four.
Kentucky will win if ... the Wildcats keep shooting well from the perimiter. As I pointed out in a column last week, UK shot 31.9 percent in 18 SEC regular-season games, which is why they ranked in the 200s nationally in 3-point shooting at the end of the regular season. But UK is shooting 41.1 percent from 3-point range since the end of the regular season, and that number would rank second nationally if it doubled as the Wildcats' season average. To be clear, UK doesn't have to shoot well from the perimeter to win; the Wildcats might just overwhelm UConn with size and athleticism. But if UK does shoot well, I think, it's hard to imagine a scenario where John Calipari doesn't collect his second national title.
Connecticut will win if ... Shabazz Napier gets going. The CBSSports.com First-Team All-American wasn't the baddest dude on the court in Saturday's win over Florida, but it didn't matter because DeAndre Daniels was superb and Florida was off. But can the Huskies really win again without Napier showing out? Perhaps. But I wouldn't try it if I were them. Bottom line, Napier needs to be big, and if he is, the national champions will come from the AAC.
Final thought: The great thing about this title game is that something truly historic is going down regardless of how it happens. If UConn wins, Shabazz Napier will forever be mentioned in the same sentence as Kemba Walker, and Kevin Ollie's young coaching career will be off to the kind of start nobody could've reasonably predicted. On the other hand, if UK wins, Michigan's Fab Five will be permanently displaced as the sport's most accomplished first-year starting lineup, and wouldn't that be something?
No team has ever won a title starting even four freshmen.
Kentucky has a chance to do it starting five.
If it happens, nobody will ever again be able to argue that a group of one-and-dones can't do the whole thing because a group of one-and-dones would have just done the whole thing, and Kentucky would then be the first team to start and finish a season ranked No. 1 since North Carolina in 2008-09. Granted, this season will not have gone like that season because that UNC team entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and won six games by double-digits to take the title. This UK team is, again, the No. 8 seed from the Midwest Region that has won its five NCAA Tournament games to date by single-digits.
But that would just make the whole thing wilder, wouldn't it?
This team that was built to cruise through the regular season actually limped most of the way, and the Wildcats have done anything but cruise in this event. Still, they're here in the most random and weird way imaginable -- as is Connecticut. And one of them is about to be a national champion, hard as that might've been to believe three weeks ago.
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