The stage is set and the month of March Madness is one game away from being completed. The National Championship Game will be between the University of Connecticut Huskies and the Kentucky Wildcats. It’s the first time a seven and an eight seed will match up against one another, but both of these teams have proven that their seeding has nothing to do with how good they’ve been in March. Here’s a look at how the teams match up.
Kentucky Wildcats – #8 Midwest Region
The team that started the season ranked number-one in the preseason polls saw some rough patches in the year. After winning their first two games of the season, they lost to #2 Michigan State, 78-74. They then would lose to #20 Baylor and #18 North Carolina in a three game stretch. And while the Wildcats never truly fell completely apart during the SEC season, losses to Arkansas, LSU and South Carolina all was enough to turn some heads and ask plenty of questions regarding how legit this team was.
Kentucky looked like they were starting to turn it on during the SEC Tournament. They avenged their loss to LSU and also beat Georgia, while going down to the buzzer against Florida. Despite the loss to Gators, the Wildcats looked to show plenty of promise in terms of what they could do with their freshman class.
When the tournament seeding’s were announced, many said that the Wildcats may not have been deserved to be as low as an eight-seed. Though now it looks like the only teams it wasn’t fair for was the ones that they defeated along the way to the championship game. They started with a 56-49 win over #9 Kansas State and then were matched up against the top team in the Midwest Region. The game would go down to the final buzzer, but the Wildcats were able to get a huge win over #1 Wichita State, which then setup a huge matchup against in-state rival, Louisville. The Wildcats walked away with the 74-69 win, before three games were they’d have to come back from double-digit deficits to advance. They would then beat Michigan, 75-72, in the Elite Eight and Wisconsin, 74-73, in the Final Four. In both of their last two games, it took an Aaron Harrison game-winning 3-pointer to solidify the win for Kentucky.
Sure, Kentucky will be looking for their second National Championship in the last three seasons, but Monday nights game may have more implications than just that. Instead, Kentucky is making a case for the entire idea behind one-and-done players. A lot of talk has been made this year about the impact of freshman sensations in the NCAA who then leave after one year of play. While some argue that the move is bad for college basketball, the Wildcats are proving that it might not be the worst philosophy to consider, considering how good they’ve looked during March.
Connecticut Huskies – #7 East Region
Much like Kentucky, the Huskies were coming off a season where they didn’t make the NCAA Tournament last year. However, while Kentucky was reloading with freshman superstars, Kevin Ollie was in his second year as the head coach and having to deal with a variety of NCAA violations that were broken by the basketball team. They were also making their first appearance outside of the Big East, making the move to the American Athletic Conference.
UCONN started the season as the #18 team in the nation. They also had a hug win against the Florida Gators, which was symbolic due to the fact it was the last loss the Gators had for 30 games. Unfortunately for Florida fans, their next loss also came to UCONN, but this time it was in the Final Four with a shot at the national title on the line. Things got rough in the season for the Huskies after losing consecutive games to Houston and SMU. They then were unable to get past Louisville, who beat them on three separate occasions, including in the American Athletic Conference Championship.
Despite being ranked a seven-seed, the Huskies had a strong showing in the AAC tournament with wins over #19 Memphis and #13 Cincinnati. The tournament, which took place at Madison Square Garden, looked eerily familiar to the campaign that the 2011 UCONN team had, when Kemba Walker carried the Huskies through the Big East and National Tournaments, winning their first championship since 2004. Now, Shabazz Napier, who was just a freshman on that championship team in 2011, will look to repeat the efforts by finishing off a magical run on Monday.
This game is going to be a matchup between young talent and proven teamwork. The Wildcats certainly have more guys who will likely go pro in the next year or two, but the Huskies have proven to work through adversity throughout their careers. Napier, who could’ve transferred when UCONN was banned from the tournament last year, decided to stay for his senior year and it’s obviously been proven to be worth it. And while Kentucky has gone into some seriously big droughts in the tournament, needing huge comebacks to win, they may want to avoid that with the Huskies. You can bet that this team of senior leadership won’t get caught up in the hype train that is the Kentucky freshman class.