NCAA Basketball Finals: The Inevitables vs. The Interlopers

Connecticut Huskies guard Bria Hartley soots over Stanford Cardinal guard Amber Orrange Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

On one court, we have the Game of Destiny. On the other, we have John Calipari’s instantly classic quote from Saturday evening about his Kentucky team: “We got 40 more minutes to play basketball, and there’s two teams standing, and we’re one of them. What!?!”

Exactly. Tomorrow night from Nashville comes the women’s NCAA basketball championship that everyone—fans, teams, the sport itself—deserves: undefeated and No. 1 Connecticut (39–0) vs. undefeated and No. 2 Notre Dame (37–0). Tonight in Arlington, Texas, a.k.a. “North Texas,” a.k.a. “Not Exactly Dallas,” comes Connecticut and Kentucky, a No. 7 and No. 8 seed, respectively, vying to determine who has been the hottest team in men’s basketball since St. Patrick’s Day.

Except for the fact that one school will be represented in both contests, no two games could be any more dissimilar. It’s the Inevitables versus the Interlopers.

To frame it in terms that are applicable to the current season—and by that I mean spring, not college basketball—the men’s game is a battle of annuals and the women’s game is a battle of perennials. It may not be like comparing apples to oranges, but it is a lot like comparing tomatoes to oranges.

“We played seven freshmen tonight, folks,” Calipari said after his Wildcats dispatched No. 2 seed Wisconsin, 74–73, on Saturday night. Indeed, Calipari appears to be employing a crop-rotation strategy in taking NCAA championships: one year on, one year off, and so on. In 2012, the Wildcats won it all and then had three freshmen and one sophomore chosen in the first round of that year’s NBA draft. Last year, the Cats were bounced in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament by Robert Morris. Kentucky Kentucky Wildcats guard Aaron Harrison (2) is mobbed by teammates after defeating the Wisconsin Badgers 74-73 Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

This season the WildKittens are back, as Calipari has started five freshmen from four different mothers (guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison are twins). How far has Kentucky (29–10) come in the past five months? From No. 1 in the preseason to unranked before the NCAA tournament began to being one of only two teams remaining on the season’s final day. The Wildcats’ demonstration that time is a flat circle is older than the phrase itself.

If Kentucky (29–10) is pulling a 2012 déjà vu, Connecticut’s men (31–8) are commemorating their school’s 2011 season. Three years ago the Huskies almost needed to win the Big East tournament simply to be invited to the Titanic Tango, then went off on a six-win tear behind a charismatic and undersized point guard named Kemba Walker. This spring the Huskies, under a new coach, Kevin Ollie, and after a season of NCAA ineligibility due to academic issues, are back and overachieving in the tournament thanks to an undersized point guard named Shabazz Napier.

Meanwhile on the distaff side, as UConn coach Geno Auriemma noted Monday, “I think the main reason that Notre Dame and us are the two best teams in the country is that our players have to stay four years.” notre dame Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Kayla McBride shoots against Maryland Terrapins forward Tierney Pfirman Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

Look at tomorrow’s women’s game, a matchup that will feature six first-, second- or third-team All-Americans: Breanna Stewart, Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson of Connecticut, and Kayla McBride, Natalie Achonwa and Jewell Loyd of Notre Dame. Four of those six are seniors.

The greatest question facing journalists covering this game is not whether who will win but rather choosing between the terms inevitable and inexorable in their previews. “It looked to me as the season went on, it almost looked as if it was inevitable to happen,” said Auriemma.

Two teams, 76 combined games in 2013–2014, and zero defeats. While it would not be a travesty if anyone besides these two were playing for the national championship at Bridgestone Arena, it would be a huge disappointment.

The men’s game will feature a pair of teams that did not win their conference tournaments, did not win their conference regular seasons, and each lost on March 8 by at least 19 points: Kentucky by 19 to No. 1 Florida and Connecticut by 33 to No. 11 Louisville. Each placed one player on an All-American team. On Monday, March 17, I surveyed 19 college basketball experts, everyone from ESPN’s Jay Bilas to CBS’s Clark Kellogg to ESPN algorithm-and-blues artist Nate Silver. Not a single one of them, not one, placed either Connecticut or Kentucky in the Final Four.

Not one. Niels Giffey Connecticut Huskies guard Niels Giffey dunk against the Florida Gators. Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not sure how many even had UConn facing Kentucky for the championship as late as Saturday afternoon, when only four games remained.

Does this mean the men’s tournament is more exciting or less valid? And what does it say about the 25 to 30 games the men’s teams play prior to March Madness, contests that this season ranged temporally from November to mid-March and spatially from Maui to Anchorage, and from Puerto Rico to Cancun?

It says that in men’s college basketball, everything that happens before the tournament selection show is prologue. That nothing else matters other than a team’s capacity to go off on a six-game win streak shortly before and after the vernal equinox.

And so, as Mr. Calipari in Lexington, Ky., has rightly come to grips with better than any of his peers, the first five months of men’s basketball season don’t matter. They’re just about teaching a group of uniquely talented but inexperienced first- and only-year of college players to learn to play with, and for, one another. Whereas Mr. Auriemma of Storrs understands that it’s about nurturing a group that will deliver their best performances for you two, three and even four years down the line.

In women’s basketball, as everyone from Auriemma to his nemesis tomorrow night, Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw will tell you, it’s important to limit turnovers. In the men’s game, as Calipari or his UConn counterpart Kevin Ollie would tell you, it’s about learning to manage turnover.

Correction: An earlier caption misidentified Notre Dame forward Kayla McBride.

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