When Kentucky and Connecticut take to the AT&T Stadium floor Monday night, history will be made. No national championship game has featured a higher combined seed total—the Huskies a No. 7 and Wildcats a No. 8—since the NCAA Tournament’s inception.
Did anyone expect the title game to feature these two teams?
No, not really. Of the more than 11 million entries in ESPN’S Tournament Challenge, only 1,780 picked Kentucky and Connecticut to meet in the championship. Or, .00016 percent of the bracket’s entered.
Kentucky is a team that basically relies solely on freshmen—five start and two play off the bench. The Wildcats lost 10 games before the tournament began, including one to South Carolina, which finished the season 14-20. Only one No. 8 seed has won it all—Villanova in 1985. And John Calipari’s squad was in what was perhaps the toughest region, the Midwest, which put No. 1 seed and undefeated Wichita State, reigning national champion Louisville, and Big Ten best Michigan in its path.
Connecticut is coming off a season in which it was prevented from going to the NCAA Tournament due to poor graduation rates. The Huskies have a second-year coach in Kevin Ollie. They lost eight games, two against Southern Methodist and one against Houston, neither of which made the tournament. Connecticut finished third in the mediocre-at-best American Athletic Conference.
So it makes sense that only 1,780 out of more than 11 million bracket entries had Kentucky and Connecticut meeting for the national championship.
Of course, no member of Kentucky or Connecticut’s teams is surprised. They did overcome plenty to get here, though.
“It's just going through the dark days believing. They just believe in each other. No matter if they're down, no matter if they're banned, no matter if they can't play in the NCAA tournament, they just believe. They keep fighting,” said Ollie.
“They know I believe in them,” Calipari said. “But these kids have been resilient.”
Maybe, though, if more people looked more closely at the talent the Wildcats and Huskies possess, more people would have correctly predicted them to make the championship game.
Kentucky’s talent is well documented. It’s just taken a while for that talent to start equating into production, and based on people’s predictions, most didn’t expect that to happen in time. But it has. The Wildcats starting five is comprised of five five-star players. Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, James Young, Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson were all top 15, five-star recruits in the 2013 class.
The Wildcats will be the first team to start five five-star players in a title game since Kentucky did it in 2012, though that team’s lineup included two sophomores. And they'll be the first team to start five freshmen in the game since Michigan.
Connecticut is no slouch, either. The Huskies’ starting lineup includes a five-star player in junior forward Deandre Daniels, two four-star guards in Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, a heavily-recruited European player in Niels Giffey and a three-star center in Phillip Nolan.
While the Kentucky-Connecticut title bout is the most surprising in history, based on the team’s seeds, if we’re ranking the game on talent, it’s right up there with most of the previous championship games.
The average recruit star rating for the players that will start Monday’s national championship game is 4.5. Over the past five years, that’s the second-highest average star rating for a championship game’s starting lineup. The only game with a higher average recruit star rating is the 2012 game between Kansas and Kentucky, which featured an average rating of 4.6.
The other three games in that five-year span, with average recruit star ratings:
2013, Michigan vs. Louisville: 3.9
2011, Connecticut vs. Butler: 3.6
2010, Duke vs. Butler: 3.8
And yes, you can make the point that rating players coming out of high school is far from an exact science. It’s tough to tell how good someone will be until they step onto a college court. Michigan’s 2013 team featured two three-star players in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. that turned into elite NBA talents.
But more often than not, it takes top high school players to win a national championship. Maryland’s 2002 team is the only national champion that didn’t have a McDonald’s All-American on its roster.
So while Monday’s national championship game is far from the most enticing game ever, if you can look past the numbers next to the team’s names, and focus on the talent on the court, it could be more entertaining than most.
And in the future, pay more attention to the talent a team has, and maybe more of you will correctly pick the national championship game in your brackets.