It is, of course, remarkable that the Kentucky Wildcats and Connecticut Huskies are meeting for the national championship in this particular season of college basketball. Yet, that statement offers a window into these two programs, which have both become members of the sport’s ruling class.
As tip-off time approaches in Arlington, Tex., it is worth appreciating how these two schools — over different lengths of time and with different national profiles — have both worked their way to college basketball’s crowning event… and toward the center of the sport’s always-evolving history.
In a fact you probably know by now, an 8 seed and a 7 seed had never previously met for the whole ball of wax on “Monday Night.” You’ve heard plenty of talk over the past few weeks about Kentucky being underseeded in this tournament, but it’s funny how you’ve not heard a whole lot about Connecticut being underseeded. Such is the power of Kentucky and the friction generated by its lightning-rod coach, John Calipari. When a high-profile program is led by a figure who — love him or loathe him (there are many on both sides of the divide) — is not shy in front of a microphone, a national conversation will ensue.
Yet, Connecticut — unlike Kentucky — actually did something in its conference tournament, beating co-champion Cincinnati in the semifinals of The American’s first league tourney in Memphis. The Huskies did more to earn a higher seed than Kentucky, but the Huskies’ seeding never became a discussion point on par with Big Blue’s place in the tournament bracket. The American’s treatment at the hands of the selection committee was talked about in the 24 hours after the Selection Show, but that was it. Moreover, Louisville’s seeding and the exclusion of SMU from the field were the two main national stories that emerged from the AAC on Selection Sunday. Connecticut remained in the shadows.
Kentucky did not. It hardly ever does.
Kentucky is always on the radar in moments of struggle and success alike. Calipari, much like another Italian-American Bluegrass maestro — Rick Pitino — possesses so much personality that an already-intense local spotlight in the Commonwealth ripples through the national press corps. Connecticut is a brand-name program, but coach Kevin Ollie is just beginning to fill Jim Calhoun’s shoes in New England (quite superbly, one might add). He has certainly injected his players with considerable quantities of swagger and belief, but he’s no Calipari in terms of generating political theater.
One can see that for all of Connecticut’s achievements, Kentucky is the name that moves the needle in contemporary college basketball. One month ago, the Wildcats were a national story because of the extent to which the 2013-2014 team had utterly failed to live up to the immense expectations accorded it in November. Now, Big Blue is the talk of the (college basketball) nation for an entirely different set of reasons. The common thread, though, is that Kentucky is the center of its sport’s universe. Big Blue Nation has always viewed itself as such, and at times, that perspective hasn’t been entirely accurate.
Yet, it mostly is.
This is a “rich-get-richer” championship game, ladies and gentlemen. Speaking strictly about the Wildcats for a moment, Kentucky is — plainly put — the most consistent decade-to-decade program in college basketball history.
The Wildcats began to win national titles in the late 1940s, before Kansas and North Carolina won their initial national crowns. Indiana preceded UK by winning the 1940 national title, and there’s no question that the Hoosiers owned the 1980s both regionally and nationally. Yet, Kentucky has excelled on a more regular basis — not just in relation to Indiana, but also Duke (whom the Wildcats defeated for the 1978 title) and North Carolina (whom UK bested in the 2011 East Regional final).
It’s true that Duke has been college basketball’s best program over the past 30 years, with North Carolina and Kansas not being far behind. Yet, Kentucky’s successes through the late 1970s, coupled with the conquests of the Pitino and Calipari years and supplemented by the work of Joe Hall and Tubby Smith, give the Wildcats a slightly longer historical reach, plus a national-title haul (8) that is second only to UCLA’s collection of 11.
Given that UCLA’s history is built of the back of a 12-season timespan, with additional Final Four appearances emerging just before and just after that stretch (1962 on the front end, 1976 on the back end; 1980 was subsequently vacated), the Bruins don’t begin to enter the discussion as far as high-level longevity is concerned. The most successful programs over time are Kentucky, North Carolina, and Kansas, followed by Duke and Indiana. If forced to choose from the UK-UNC-Kansas trio, it’s extremely difficult to ignore the national championship numbers.
Kentucky basketball and Alabama football aren’t that different. Dedicated fans, cultural centrality, the ownership of immense resources, the presence of a controversy-generating yet unmistakably gifted coach — they all exist for a reason: There’s an established history — and expectation — of high-level success in both Lexington and Tuscaloosa.
Yet, for all the ways in which Kentucky might be the best of the long-term powers in college basketball since the NCAA tournament began in 1939, Connecticut is even more clearly the program whose rise over the past 15 years has been the most meteoric.
The Connecticut Huskies — in men’s and women’s basketball — had not won a single national title 20 years ago.
Tonight and tomorrow, UConn will have a chance to win its 12th and 13th national titles, a fourth in the men’s game and a ninth in the women’s game. No school has played better college basketball — both genders — over the past 20 years, and it’s not even a close call. The women’s game between Connecticut and Notre Dame is its own story. Focusing strictly on tonight’s game with Kentucky, UConn has a chance to win a fourth national title in a span of only 15 years, encompassing 16 seasons.
The Huskies have, quite simply, become the ultimate closers at the Final Four. Connecticut’s win over Florida was historically significant not just because it stopped yet another winning streak of 30 or more games in the Final Four (the fourth time that’s happened since the NCAA tournament began to be seeded 35 years ago), but because it lifted the Huskies’ Final Four record to 7-1 while pushing Billy Donovan’s Final Four record at Florida down to 5-2. Connecticut and Florida were competing for their own increased shares of Final Four history on Saturday, and the Huskies — despite their much lower seeding and the inability to benefit from a Madison Square Garden crowd — were able to prevail in comfortable fashion.
Beyond a season-specific context, the national semifinal win over Florida elevated UConn on a larger level in the annals of college basketball. As the story of the Final Four’s best programs is continuously rewritten and updated over time, Connecticut moves closer to the center of the narrative. The fact that UConn so easily absorbed Florida without Jim Calhoun — rising far above a No. 1 seed under a much younger and less established successor — only adds to Connecticut’s aura as a can’t-miss program.
How much of a March (and early-April) reputation is UConn creating? This is the school which — after losing to Duke in 1990 and then somehow finding spectacular ways to fall short with great teams through much of the 1990s — has threaded the needle almost every time it has owned a team capable of greatness. The 2006 squad represented a notable exception to this pattern, and the 2009 team had the misfortune of playing a de facto road game against Michigan State at the Final Four when the event was held in Detroit. Yet, on the other recent occasions when the brass ring was there for the taking, UConn has taken it.
What’s particularly striking in a survey of the Huskies’ championship history is that they have won their titles — even with some of their best collections of talent — from underdog positions at some point in the Final Four.
Connecticut was a clear underdog to Duke in the 1999 national championship game. Connecticut stood on fairly level terms with Duke in the 2004 national semifinals, but the Huskies stole that game with a late rally against the run of play. The 2011 title was a Big East fairy tale straight out of the 1985 Villanova playbook, at least in the sense that a team came together in March after looking like a middle-tier seed for most of the season. The 2011 Huskies were a 3 seed and not the 7 seed they are this year (or the 8 seed Villanova was 29 years ago), but they definitely rode a magic carpet of momentum and confidence to the winner’s circle. Coincidentally enough, they defeated John Calipari’s other surprising Final Four team at Kentucky along the way, beating Big Blue in the national semifinals in another Texas city (Houston) before disposing of Butler in the title game.
This 2014 run to the national championship game has featured one authoritative performance after another for Connecticut… but from the unmistakable position of a team that was not expected to forge most of them. While Kentucky’s games in this NCAA tournament have captivated college basketball fans — three of the last four outings for Big Blue (the Louisville win being the one ragged and somewhat uneven exception) are legitimate college basketball classics — Connecticut’s games have appeared to be pedestrian.
This isn’t the Huskies’ fault, mind you — Connecticut’s defense has simply been so good that it has snuffed the life out of both Michigan State and Florida, two teams that were viewed as national championship favorites on Selection Sunday. Yet, in terms of both drama and two-team quality over the course of 40 minutes, you wouldn’t view any of Connecticut’s games in the same way you’d appraise Kentucky’s collection of tournament conquests.
It’s rather ironic when you think about it: The very absence of drama from Connecticut’s savage takedown of Florida, the top overall seed in this year’s NCAA tournament, is precisely the detail which adds to the notion that the Huskies own the Final Four stage more than any other program in the sport, at least over the past 15 years.
Connecticut can’t yet boast of double-digit Final Four appearances the way Kentucky can, but if UConn wins tonight in Texas — three years after fending off Big Blue in another meeting at a Lone Star State Final Four — college basketball will welcome a sixth member to the “four-national championship club,” a member that will own a better Final Four resume than any program not named UCLA.
This brings us back to the beginning of our story: It’s remarkable that Kentucky and Connecticut are playing tonight.
Kentucky and Connecticut might have Cinderella-level seeds attached to their places on the bracket sheet. You might see “8 versus 7″ and think these are outsiders. Yet, Kentucky and Connecticut have — in their own ways and over different lengths of time — shown an ability to gain center stage.
Both teams have caught fire over the past three weeks — Kentucky winning white-knucklers while Connecticut has flexed its muscles in most of its tournament wins. Kentucky has relied primarily on a freshmen-dominated frontcourt while Connecticut has entrusted its veteran backcourt with a large workload. Kentucky’s coach is wedded to the spotlight, while Connecticut’s coach is building a name for himself in a much more quiet manner.
Kentucky’s overpowering presence in a Final Four building — not just this year, but any year — is the product of a reputation forged over the course of many decades. Connecticut’s inexhaustible supply of energy is the product of the past two decades, and the spirit of a program that has been passed from a mentor-patriarch (Calhoun) to one of his best students (Ollie). Kentucky is college basketball’s most consistent program over time. Connecticut is the nascent power in a more recent stretch of the sport’s history.
It is indeed remarkable that UK and UConn are here — that point has not changed, and it will not change, regardless of the outcome tonight.
Yet, the very fact that these two programs have surprised all of us in 2014 shows how relentlessly they have commanded the attention of anyone who follows college basketball… and how hard it is going to be to displace either one of them from the spotlight in the years to come.
If Kentucky and Connecticut can vie for the right to be number one as an 8 and a 7, they’re quite likely to make their way back to future Final Fours with seedings worthy of their immense achievements and ever-growing reputations.
Tonight’s game, when viewed solely through the prism of the bracket sheet, bears all the marks of David. Yet, no one can question the credentials of these two Goliaths in college basketball as they prepare to determine a season’s national champion.