ARLINGTON, Texas -- Forget, for a moment, the ongoing debate about whether or not John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats are good for college basketball or bad for college basketball. (Though as time goes on and evidence mounts, I find myself starting to lean toward the former.) Let's talk instead about how bad, how cruel, Kentucky has been to itself in this tournament. It has been so mean.
The glory of the NCAA tournament is that because of its punishing, one-bad-40-minute-stretch-and-you're-done format, there is almost no margin for error. Duke's offense shuts down for one five-minute stretch, and boom, Mercer has the upset. Andrew Wiggins has an off-night, and whammo, Kansas is out. This is how the tournament works. One little thing goes wrong, and just like that, you're gone.
The Wildcats have laughed in the face of this the whole tournament. They were behind at halftime in every single game but the first one. (Fittingly, that's one where they almost lost a lead late.) They trailed by as many as nine to an undefeated Wichita State team and nearly lost on a last-second three-pointer. They fell behind 18-5 to Louisville and by seven with five minutes left to Louisville, only to be saved by an Aaron Harrison three-pointer with 39 seconds left. The deficit was 14-6 against Michigan before they were saved by, lo, an Aaron Harrison three-pointer with 2.3 seconds. The worst of all was Wisconsin, which somehow combined all these: A 17-9 start; a five-point deficit with five points left; a game that Wisconsin essentially dominated save for a 15-0 Wildcats run over a four-minute stretch; and an Aaron Harrison three-pointer with 6.7 points seconds left.
Kentucky has done everything wrong, at so many different moments, in so many different ways that would have felled any other team, any normal team. And it as constantly saved by that one big run and that one big shot. It is highly risky, it's totally self-destructive, it's completely unsustainable. But it's been working.
In the national championship game on Monday, it looked for all the world like it was doing it again. This time, the details (which are almost becoming rote at this point): a 30-15 deficit to start. A disorganized, vaguely panicked vibe for most of the whole first half. An opponent with less talent executing its game to perfection on the biggest stage. This time the Wildcats even added "terrible free-throw shooting" to the ledger. They would up the level of difficulty to unheard of levels, for no particular reason, and then some wild three-pointer would go in or James Young would rattle the known galaxy to its very core and they'd bail themselves out once more. This has been the story of the whole tournament.
But not Monday. Monday, they were taken out by a story even more fascinating than their own. Connecticut beat Kentucky 60-54 to win its fourth national championship in the last 15 years, in one of the most improbable tournament runs in recent memory. Connecticut nearly lost in the first round to St. Joseph's, they lost to Louisville by 33 points a month ago (a loss that's now the largest margin of defeat by an eventual national champion in NCAA history), it was a No. 7 seed many were picking not to even win a single game, and it had a coach in his second year who had never coached in the NCAA tournament. (And was just in the NBA, like, a couple of weeks ago, it seems.) Kentucky can talk about its crazy run all it wants. There was nothing crazier than what Connecticut did in this tournament.
There will be plenty of comparisons of Shabazz Napier to Kemba Walker after this championship -- and only four people have put up the numbers Napier did in this tournament, and only two of those, Napier and Walker, ended up with a title -- but Connecticut looked like the better team, similar to how Wisconsin looked like the better team in the national semifinal. The pattern was set: Connecticut had the lead, Kentucky would make a run with some insanely athletic play … and Connecticut would hang in and never fall out. Napier was the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament and scored 22 points with six rebounds tonight, but Ryan Boatright was just as impressive. The Huskies looked, against Kentucky's freshmen, like veterans.
People have been waiting for that dynamic to work against the Wildcats for two weeks. On Monday, it finally did.
Not that Connecticut didn't make things difficult for themselves too. For a 14-minute stretch at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second, its offense was virtually nonexistent, notching only three field goals and barely even moving the ball around. (As USA TODAY Sports' Dan Wolken put it, "UConn had 30 points in the game's first 14 minutes. Just 11 over the next 14.") The Huskies were so disjointed that they even seemed actively angry with each other in the middle of possessions, and Napier was oddly tentative, passing up open shots and forcing dishes in the middle of a consistently crowded lane. This was to be the time when Kentucky finished if off the way it always had.
And yet Connecticut never did quite give up that lead. The Huskies were a No. 7 seed in the non-chalkiest bracket imaginable, but this doesn't feel like a fluke: For this month, they were the best team. It doesn't make any sense that they would win the tournament, but it made more sense, as a matter of consistency, than Kentucky winning. Kentucky had more talent. But the better team won -- maybe for the first time, when it comes to Kentucky, since that first-round game. There was no coming back this time.
Anything can happen, and has happened, in the NCAA tournament. It is designed to be unpredictable. It is a glorious small sample size. But as it turns out, for Kentucky, just not quite small enough. While the rest of the college basketball world was looking at Kentucky and Duke and Florida and Kansas and Louisville … Connecticut was building the weirdest, most disjointed, most amazing dynasty imaginable. It doesn't make any sense. That's precisely why it's so great.