Kentucky-UConn title game pits blue blood vs. new blood
When UConn and Kentucky get together tonight to play for a national championship, it will be a matchup between two programs who seemingly have so much in common.
Each school will be playing for their second title in four years, with both making their third Final Four appearance in a six-year stretch as well. Each will also be gunning for their fourth title since 1996; a real argument can be made by both that they are the “Program of the Century” since the calendars turned to 2000.
Yet as much as these two programs have in common, there is one striking difference, and that’s the history and prestige of each. While Kentucky has college basketball bloodlines that run generations deep (cue the bad horse racing puns, here), UConn is the new-school power who seemingly emerged on the scene, like, yesterday. Kentucky is Thurston Howell III; old, established, well-known, regal. UConn is Mark Cuban, the occasionally loud, sometimes brash, tight-shirt wearing newbie who hasn’t always acted like they’ve been there before, because well, until a decade ago they hadn’t been.
Kentucky-UConn will be a battle of a lot of things, but none more so than this: It will be a battle of blue blood vs. new blood, with a title on the line.
Let’s start with Kentucky, because in terms of college basketball royalty, they really are it. In a world where Duke, Carolina, Kansas and UCLA all want to claim themselves as college basketball’s greatest program, the Wildcats have a resume that not only matches, but surpasses them all, in seemingly every way possible.
You want numbers? Oh, Kentucky’s got ‘em. The Wildcats rank No. 1 in college basketball history in wins, with 2,111 overall. That is 10 more than Kansas, 21 more than North Carolina, and a whopping 110 more than Duke (take that, Coach K!!). They are also first in winning percentage at .763 overall (a number that even the immortal Billy Gillispie couldn’t destroy) and No. 1 in tournament wins with 53.
And even when Kentucky isn’t No. 1 in the record books, they’re not far behind. For example, the Wildcats are a ho-hum second all-time in total national championships with eight, a number which obviously is impressive, but even more so when you put it into further context. You see, the only team Kentucky trails in that department is UCLA, a school which has 11 titles, yes, but 10 of them come in a 12-year stretch when John Wooden was doing crazy John Wooden things in Westwood. That’s not to say UCLA was bad before 1964 or after ’75, but it doesn’t have the long-term vitality of Kentucky either; UK’s eight national championships have come over five different decades and under five different coaches.
And it’s that last part which may be the most impressive part about Kentucky; they are Darwinism come to college basketball, a school which continues to evolve with the times. While other college basketball powers have come and gone, it’s Kentucky which has been able to build and re-build itself over and over again. This is a school which has endured coaching changes, era changes, NCAA sanctions, overall malaise (again, cue Gillispie), and a million other things which have broken a million other programs. Yet Kentucky always seem to eventually end up back on top of the college basketball food chain.
So that’s Kentucky … and then there’s UConn, a school that doesn’t have the history of its opponent. Nor does it have the prestige or overall basketball acumen that North Carolina, Indiana or Kansas can claim. That is, at least until the early- to mid-1990s, when really you could stack up UConn against anyone.
And really, what’s most interesting about the two programs is that single fundamental difference between the two. For Kentucky, you can define the program by coaches, by generations, by eras. For UConn there really are only two eras in program history: Before Jim Calhoun and After.
Yes, UConn had success in basketball before Calhoun’s arrival in the late 1980s, but ultimately it was as a regional power in the old Yankee conference. For comparison’s sake, the Huskies made their first NCAA Tournament in 1951 (the same year Kentucky was wrapping up its third national championship), and made a grand total of one Elite Eight appearance prior to 1990.
By the way, remember how we mentioned earlier that Kentucky is No. 1 all-time in wins? Yeah, UConn is 27th, which isn’t bad, until you consider some of the schools in front of the Huskies. That includes famed college basketball powers like Princeton, Western Kentucky and Utah, not to mention Oregon State, a school whose college basketball lineage basically begins and ends with fellow Fox employee Gary Payton.
Yes, you read that correctly: Oregon Freakin’ State has more wins in program history than UConn does. Some world we live in, huh?
But that’s also why, when breaking down UConn, its ascension to the top of the sport is so damn impressive. When Jim Calhoun arrived, there was no blueprint, no tried and true history of success to fall back on, or build from. For UConn, think about it like this: There are literally people who are 35 years old that remember a time when UConn was a national laughingstock in college hoops, not a national power. Forget competing with Kentucky and Duke for titles, it wasn’t all that long ago that UConn was competing with Seton Hall and Providence to avoid last place in the Big East.
Yet, whatever UConn was, it hardly defines what it is now, which is unquestionably one of the premiere programs of the modern era. It began in 1990, when the Huskies made their first real run under Calhoun, advancing to the program’s second Elite Eight ever that year. There was another coming in 1995 (ironically, Kevin Ollie’s senior year), a No. 1 seed in 1996 and one more Elite Eight berth in 1998. The program finally broke through with its first national championship in 1999, after being on the doorstep for a decade.
Since then, UConn hasn’t looked back, and has lapped just about everyone in college basketball. The program has added two more championships, with all five Final Four berths in school history coming in that stretch. Since 1999, UConn has more Final Fours than North Carolina, Duke or Kansas (four each during that stretch), not to mention UCLA or even Kentucky (three apiece). UConn’s three titles during that stretch is the most as well.
So there you have it: Two college basketball programs who have taken two entirely different paths to get to Monday night, not just this season, but historically as well.
It’ll be a college basketball blue blood vs. a college basketball new blood playing for a championship, with the age-old adage coming true:
It’s not where you start, but where you end up.
And where each school has ended up, is one game from another title.