In the weeks since the UConn Huskies’ 60-54 NCAA championship victory over the Kentucky Wildcats on April 7, the game, as well as the team’s place in history, has been discussed and dissected by all kinds of people. The Wildcats, an eighth seed, and Huskies, a seventh seed, made up the highest combination of seeds to ever play in a National Championship game. To add to the odds stacked against them from the start, neither team was anywhere near the championship game last year, as both failed to qualify for the 68-team tourney.
Kentucky has become known in recent years for being the go-to program for players who enter college planning to leave after their freshman year for the NBA. In 2012, the Wildcats cruised to the National Championship with freshman Anthony Davis and five other future NBA players. Last year, the Kentucky faithful watched as the team failed to make it out of the first round of the second-tier National Invitation Tournament.
No one knew what to expect from the team coming into this season, as they suited up eight freshmen on their 16-man roster. The team started the season as the top-ranked team in both the AP Poll and the USA Today Coaches Poll and were bolstered by top recruit Julius Randle, but slipped up a few times before the season was over.
Entering the tournament on March 20, Kentucky defeated the ninth-seeded Kansas State Wildcats 56-49. They then went on to knock off the previously undefeated Wichita State Shockers (35-1), before narrow victories over the Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, and the defending National Champion Louisville Cardinals. The last three Kentucky wins all shared a similar storyline, with freshman Aaron Harrison sinking a 3-pointer in the closing seconds to seal each win.
On the other end of the court, UConn has been a powerhouse in college basketball ever since the hiring of Head Coach Jim Calhoun in 1986. They had won three national titles in the previous 15 seasons before this year, most recently in 2011. In 2011-12, the Huskies were bounced in the first round, and in 2012-13, after the departure of Calhoun, were ruled academically ineligible for post-season play.
Connecticut promoted assistant Kevin Ollie to head coach. Ollie, an alumnus, was playing in the NBA as recently as the 2009-10 season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. After being a key player on the 2011 championship team, Shabazz Napier stuck with the team, even though numerous teammates departed in the draft or by transfer.
The main discussion coming into the game focused on the perceived ideologies of each program. Kentucky made a case for the effectiveness of recruiting the best possible class year in and year out, regardless of players moving on after one year. UConn, on the other hand, had the opportunity to fuel the argument of traditionalists who value experience over raw talent. The Huskies did just that.
The “hungry Huskies” never trailed in the National Championship game, though Kentucky’s freshmen kept it close by bouncing back from a disappointing first few minutes.
Post-game, Napier was named the Final Four’s most outstanding player, for both his offensive and defensive work.
“You’re looking at the hungry Huskies,” Napier explained on the court stage. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is what happens when you banned us.”
After the game, Kentucky Head Coach John Calipari was very frank about his team’s effort. “We had our chances to win, we’re missing shots, we’re missing free throws. We just didn’t have enough.”
Calipari wasn’t too broken up, as he joked with reporters about the possibility of his freshmen returning for another year. Though there has been speculation Calipari may take over for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2014, if he stays he will likely be back in the championship game soon, as all he needs to get there is another in the long line of strong recruiting classes to commit.
The day after the UConn men’s championship victory, the women sealed the deal with a win over Notre Dame, becoming the first program since 2004 to win both the men’s and women’s championships in the same season. The school that did it in 2004? The University of Connecticut.
For now college basketball sits in the shadows of the NBA and MLB seasons, but behind the scenes, coaches are actively recruiting and watching as writers compile their all too premature preseason rankings in anticipation for next season’s madness.