In 1985, the NCAA Tournament expanded to include 64 teams and began to seed them 1-16 in four separate regions. In that first expanded tournament, the Villanova Wildcats entered as the No. 8 seed and went on to win the championship. Since that very first expanded tournament, no team seeded No. 7 or worse has ever won the whole thing, and only a single team with that low of a seed has even reached the final game, the Butler Bulldogs in 2011 as a No. 8 seed. On Monday, in Arlington, Texas, the University of Connecticut Huskies and the Kentucky Wildcats will meet in the NCAA National Championship game as by far the lowest pair of seeds ever to reach the final game.
UConn arrives in the championship game absolutely on fire. In tournament play, the Huskies are shooting better than 46 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point distance, both better than their season averages. The team has also reduced their personal fouls and stepped up their defense at the same time. This is all particularly true since they had a close call in their opening game against Saint Joseph’s, a game that went to overtime before the Huskies pulled away.
Many people have compared this to the run Connecticut went on in 2011, when the team got hot winning the Big East Tournament and was carried by Kemba Walker to a national championship. The 2014 version is a much more unexpected story. In 2011 they were a No. 3 seed, and actually had a perfect record outside of conference play and featured two future lottery picks in the NBA draft, Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb. This time around, they are a No. 7 seed, and while they are being carried once again by an undersized shooting guard in Shabazz Napier, there is no big time NBA prospect on the roster. Napier himself was a freshman on UConn’s last championship winning team, and will likely be drafted, but he is bordering on the end of the first round or early second. Head coach Kevin Ollie, in his second year, has done an exceptional job. Every game in the tournament, his players have looked well-prepared and ready to play. The team is also coming off of a postseason ban in 2013. Ollie lost two players to the NBA and three to transfers after the announcement, but his biggest contributors this season all decided to stick around. Their loyalty has paid off.
Kentucky, as a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, is at least as much a surprise as their opponent. Their roster features nine freshman, a staggering number even for a John Calipari squad. Coach Calipari does an exceptional job of acquiring talent, so much so that his teams often lose players early to the NBA. Prior to this season, Kentucky had two players taken in the first round of the draft; in 2012 they had six players taken, including both the first and second overall picks in Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. This year’s squad is no different. There are at least six players who have at least a chance to play in the NBA, starting with Kentucky’s leading scorer Julius Randle.
Kentucky is the opposite of UConn. They are much younger, and filled with more physical talent. They are the best rebounding team in the nation, and they score well within the three-point line. The Wildcats were the No. 1 ranked team in the Associated Press preseason poll, so everyone knows they are full of talent.
The match-up is an exciting one and will make for a fantastic game. Both teams are fairly evenly matched, both like to shoot a lot, and both play with extraordinary energy. Combined with the stakes at hand, and the coaches at the helm, the effort level from both teams in this game will be exceptional. Look for UConn to hoist a lot of threes, and Kentucky to work the ball inside. Kentucky may see the return of Willie Cauley-Stein, who missed the last two games with an ankle injury, but he should not be counted on with such a short turnaround between games. The teams are otherwise healthy. Between the energy of the game and the way the offenses function, look for a quick paced game. The match-up is incredibly close. UConn looked unbeatable after a thorough take down of the top team in the nation, Florida, while Kentucky beat another No. 1 seed, the previously undefeated Wichita State. The Huskies have been slightly more convincing in their wins, with an average margin of victory of 8.2 points per game, compared to the Wildcats’ 3.6 points per game average.
Back when the Villanova Wildcats won their championship in 1985, they featured six future NBA draft picks. They emerged from a very tough conference, the Big East, to win it all. Just like in the first modern tournament field, the Wildcats from a tough conference will take home the championship this season, only this time they will be from Kentucky out of the SEC. In spite of their lack of experience, the Kentucky Wildcats put their talent on display and defeat the seasoned, fierce, Connecticut Huskies, 72-69.
Commentary by Brian Moore