By Matt Norlander
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Whether you're fully invested in college hoops or just a casual observer, throughout the season you heard how this year's tournament could very well give us unpredictable unfolding en route to the title.
This stumping is somewhat rooted in truth, but in most years it's usually just fodder and hope for an NCAA tournament that is much more predictable than we like to remember. "The NCAAs are so crazy/unpredictable/wild!"
They are, but usually in that first weekend. But the mania's actually happened this year; the prophecy came true, all the way to the title game. A No. 8 and a No. 7 still stand. We've never seen the final game feature two teams whose seeds tally up so high.
"I don't think we were an eight seed and I don't think Connecticut was a seven seed, and I don't think Pitt was a nine seed and I don't think Louisville was a four seed," Kentucky coach John Calipari said Sunday.
Yet the programs involved aren't surprising guests. Kentucky, the greatest program of all time (2,140 wins is the most ever, and 117 NCAA tournament wins is tops in history) against UConn, who's playing for a stake as the greatest program of the past 15 years (no one matches their three titles now, let alone if they got to a fourth).
It's a fitting dichotomy for the sport right now. Because the tournament is volatile. And the players coming into the sport have allowed for teams that blend together as much as ever. That is only reinforced every season. But when we get down to it, we're still lining up national champions who are top-10 national programs. Go ahead and look back at the past 10 years. Then look back at the last 20. Bring up the title winners since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. All but a few of them are perennial powers.
And we'll have it again, because Kentucky or Connecticut's earning another banner in a matter of hours. UK's trying to win its ninth NCAA tournament, its second in three years. Connecticut's trying to win its fourth title in 15 seasons. The seeds at this point seem irrelevant, and that's another maxim we heard plenty about leading up to and during the tournament.
It's the best possible matchup for viewers. Are you excited? Intrigued? It's hard not to be.
"Last night after the game, we went to the hotel, showered, ate some chicken tacos and couldn't really sleep," UConn's DeAndre Daniels said. "[I] was tossing and turning all night just thinking about Monday. I just couldn't wait to get on the court."
The numbers next to the teams truly don't matter when you see the uniforms at play here. Monday night's rating will be good no matter what, but if Kentucky's propensity for playing in close tourney games extends once more? Then it'll probably be one of the highest-rated finals of the past 25 years. A big deficit for either team early shouldn't be reason to turn away. Kentucky's been down nine or more points in its past four games. UConn trailed the No. 1 overall seed 16-4, then squeezed the life out of Florida.
UConn, which has beaten the tournament champions of the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Atlantic 10 -- just in this NCAA tournament -- should feel like the huge underdog, yet that's not remotely the case.
Las Vegas has established Kentucky as a 2- or 3-point favorite, but the game has a toss-up feel. Shabazz Napier: you betting against that guy? We're all pretty excited to see how it plays out, because both teams still seem tough to read. For three weeks everyone's been waiting for Kentucky to put up a stinker. For three weeks, everyone's been waiting for UConn to look more like what we think UConn should be rather than what it actually is.
John Calipari vs. Kevin Ollie. Two men who first met each other at the NBA level. They're not that much alike, but they're not polar opposites, either. The teams match that.
"A guy like that who never pointed fingers at anybody but himself through all his trials and tribulations and everything he's been through, you can learn from that," Napier said. "We all believe. We all believed in each other, and no matter what's going on, whether I'm laughing and joking with him or when I was a sophomore and I was crying in his arms because I was upset the way I was playing, he was always there for me. I never had a father in my life, and like I always said, I feel like he was always a father figure to me. That's what I wanted. He believed everything I did was with a lot of passion. It may not be the right thing at the right time, but he understood that I gave everything I got. When you have somebody like that in your corner, you should always cherish that and [we have] just been growing up since."
Those are some powerful words from Napier on a coach that some UConn fans were skeptical of back when he replaced Jim Calhoun in September of 2012. A win would vault Ollie's legacy into something so profound for that program.
And win would really redefine Calipari's legacy, too. Getting to two is special. And his NCAA tournament winning percentage would creep up to 77. He'd be 19-2 at UK in the NCAAs. It erases any melodrama or letdown from a one-and-done NIT showing in 2013 or the boiling criticism that peaked about a month ago, after Kentucky dropped two games to average Arkansas and lost at lowly South Carolina.
"My whole thing is I'm coaching the hand that's dealt," Calipari said. "I'm making sure it's about these young men up here. I'm not trying to make this about me or the program and staying or leaving because of those things. This is what we have. We got a bunch of young kids trying to do this. I'm proud of them and know that I don't have all the answers. Like I said last night, I'm not this genius up here."
One missed shot against Michigan or Wisconsin and Kentucky wouldn't be here. UConn grabbed a rebound against Saint Joe's, trailing by three with 40 seconds to go, and managed to get that game to overtime. Every coach knows you need luck to get this far.
"The reality of it is they do have a competitive spirit," Calipari said. "When they get down, they grow hair on their necks and they come after you and they don't ever stop playing."
When we get to a title game, we want teams that are interesting and a game that offers up reason to watch and doubt about an outcome. College hoops has given us big-name champions, and will again. The best part is, these teams have proven to play close games, which means we've got a good shot at getting one of the more competitive and tight title games, perhaps ever. You doubting that? You must not have been watching how we got here.
* * *
Matt Norlander is a contributor to Sports on Earth and a writer at CBSSports.com. He lives in Connecticut and is equal parts obsessed with sports and music. Follow him on Twitter: @MattNorlander.