Whether you are a fan of college basketball or not, Monday night’s NCAA National Championship Game is everything we hope a championship contest can be. From start players and big-name coaches, this game unquestionably matches the two hottest teams in the nation facing off in the final Monday of college ball. At one point or another, neither team was supposed to make it to the end. Now, the national championship game features two Cinderella teams. Here are five reasons you should park yourself on the couch and tune in when Connecticut (26-8) faces Kentucky (24-10) at 9:15 p.m. tonight at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX.
There’s so much history to be made here, in a game where both programs have established themselves as the very best college basketball programs in a generation. If UConn wins, as improbable as its run to the title game was, it will have cut the nets after the championship game for the fourth time in 16 years, matching Duke for most national championships since the John Wooden era. The Kentucky Wildcats hold a chance to win their second title in three years under coach John Calipari.
These are made-for-TV roads to the championship final. UConn was banned from the 2013 NCAA Tournament, despite a 20-10 record because of an academic-related probation dating back to players no longer enrolled in the school. Tyler Olander, Niels Giffey, and Shabazz Napier all decided not to transfer while the team served its sanctions. Now Napier is the biggest star in the tournament. Kentucky started the year as a preseason favorite and finished the regular season unranked in the final AP Poll. The Wildcats began the tourney as the No. 8 seed and knocked off top-ranked Wichita State and defending champs Louisville during their title-game run. Now, on the heels of two game-winning buzzer-beaters by Aaron Harrison, they are for the first time playing with five freshman starters since the Michigan Fab Five.
In a college basketball season that has been all about one-and-done freshmen, Shabbaz Napier was even lost in the conversation about upperclassmen while pundits swooned over Creighton’s Doug McDermott. Napier was a solid freshman role player on the UConn team, led by Kemba Walker, that marched to the 2011 national championship. And now the 6'1" point guard is drawing endless comparisons with Walker, as he’s blossomed into the face of March Madness—much the way Walker did, while averaging 21.0 points, 4.8 assists, and 2.4 steals in the tournament. Coupled with senior Ryan Boatright, the Huskies have formed the fiercest background in college basketball.
Kevin Ollie will step out into a spotlight all his own Monday night at AT&T Stadium in Texas. Ollie, a former UConn guard who played for 11 teams in 13 seasons in the NBA, is in just his second season after taking over the Huskies program from Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun. Ollie played for Calhoun and coached under the coach whose name is as famous as any in college basketball. Not to mention the fact that he served just two years as an assistant. Boatright was quoted as saying, “We all want to be like him.”
The Kentucky coach has become a near-polarizing figure in college sports. A master recruiter, who has had his coaching acumen questioned, is leading his team to its second national title game in his third year as coach. Calipari is known now as a conduit for players looking to go one-and-done, to make the jump from college to the NBA lottery. But his 2012-13 Wildcats are a team that struggled to jell early and now find themselves surprisingly in the place that everyone originally expected them to be—the final game of the Tournament. Maybe that’s why on Friday Calipari suggested we all change “one-and-done” to “succeed and proceed.”