ARLINGTON, Texas — When The Associated Press released its final poll of the season, UConn was ranked 18th. Kentucky wasn’t ranked at all. Their remarkable runs to Monday’s championship game make the game trivially historic — a No. 7 seed had never before made it to the title game and a No. 7 seed had faced a No. 8 seed just once before in the history of the tournament.
Every year at this time, the punditry asserts that it will be a crazy year befitting a crazy college basketball season. Sports are naturally crazy, and the NCAA tournament is probably the most powerful randomizing force in the sports world. It gets wild.
This particular brand of crazy has a lot to do with last year, when neither Kentucky nor UConn was in the tournament at all. In 2012-13, the Wildcats just turned out not to be very good. (Another bit of trivia: The only team to beat Kentucky in postseason play the last three seasons? Robert Morris in the 2013 NIT.) UConn last season was serving a one-year, NCAA-imposed postseason ban for scoring low in the NCAA’s academic metric (APR) over the course of four academic years.
And so it is the rare championship game in which both teams can reasonably think of themselves as underdogs.
"We feel like we have been doubted the whole season," said UConn’s DeAndre Daniels. "Definitely heading into the tournament when people didn’t have us winning the first game."
The Wildcats can’t claim an entire season’s worth of doubt. They were No. 1 in the preseason, and not just No. 1, but, "They can go 40-0" No. 1. Their participation in this Final Four was presumed.
But people love to see giants fall, and the general public watched gleefully as the Wildcats’ losses kept coming, and kept getting worse. Michigan State, then Baylor, then North Carolina, then Arkansas, LSU, Florida, Arkansas again and then South Carolina. Kentucky finished the regular season with 10 losses, three of them to Florida, which won the SEC by six games.
Kentucky coach John Calipari keeps alluding to some vague midseason "tweak" made in the way he coached this group. He won’t tell anybody what it is (nor will his players), and nobody seems to be able to see it, so it’s fair to wonder if this is just another one of his little narratives he likes to create.
"When I tell you what I did to change, the tweak that I made, you will say, ‘Why didn’t you do it earlier?’ I have no good answer," Calipari said. "The only thing I can come back with is maybe they wouldn’t have accepted it two months ago, maybe they had to get knocked down a little lower."
Whatever happened, it happened big. You could see it in the SEC tournament, where Kentucky crushed LSU and Georgia and just about beat Florida. And you could really see it in the second round of the NCAA tournament against No. 1 seed Wichita State in a game that seemed to bring out the best in both teams.
Suddenly, eighth-seeded Kentucky looked like the best team in the field.
UConn, though, was never supposed to be this good. Not after last year, and not this soon under new coach Kevin Ollie. The Huskies opened conference play with back-to-back losses to Houston and SMU. They lost to Louisville three times, dropped three home games, went 12-6 in the American Athletic Conference.
The Huskies look back now at those losses to Houston and SMU, which knocked UConn out of the Top 25, and see something positive.
"Those losses were more important than anything else," guard Niels Giffey said. "Those losses were more important than any win we ever had because they kind of leveled us."
And here they are, Huskies and Wildcats, seeded seventh and eighth, and not giving a damn.
"We don’t let outsider statements affect us," UConn’s Terrence Samuel said. "We just got out there and give it our all."