In NCAA Finals, Two Recent Champions On Unlikely Rides

The Kentucky Wildcats and the Connecticut Huskies take the court in Monday's NCAA men's college basketball final. NPR's Tom Goldman talks to Melissa Block about what to watch for in the game.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

It's Huskies versus Wildcats as the Men's Division I college basketball season comes to an end tonight. Facing off are two recent champions: the University of Connecticut, who won in 2011, and the University of Kentucky who won in 2012. They've both had improbable rides to tonight's title game.

For more, I'm joined by NPR's Tom Goldman who will be covering the game in Arlington, Texas. And, Tom, let's talk first about this match up, give us a few things to look out for.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Sure, Melissa. Let's start with guard play. OK?

BLOCK: OK.

GOLDMAN: And the UConn guards, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatwright, against Kentucky's Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron. Now, the UConn guys each are about six inches shorter than the 6'6" Harrisons, and can Napier and Boatwright utilize their quickness to get steals and generally harass. Now, nearer to the basket Kentucky is a big dominating team that usually out of rebounds opponents, with 7 foot center Dakari Johnson, 6'9" 250 pound Julius Randle.

UConn's forward Deandre Daniels is a wisp by comparison, 6'9" 195, but he's quick and agile, a good shooter. He scored 18 points or more eight times this season. UConn won all those games. So if he has a good game offensively, good things can happen.

Now one other thing, UConn head coach Kevin Ollie says he wants his team to make Kentucky shoot from the outside. Of course, what he doesn't want is a close game at the end and Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison shooting from the outside. Harrison is, of course, on this never before seen streak, three straight games where he's clinched the victory with a last second three point shot.

BLOCK: And, Tom, there's been a lot of talk about the fact that this is an unlikely match up, a seventh seed UConn going up against an eighth seed in Kentucky. What does that really mean though?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, it mainly means that your top seeds, the ones and twos, the supposed best teams are long gone. Seven and eight are pretty low. Although most people think the teams, especially Kentucky, were under-seeded. Still, it is a match up few if any predicted.

I will give you a personal example. I just happened to win my March Madness pool. And it had about 70 entrants and I didn't pick the two teams playing in the championship. And I don't think that's ever happened, in our pool at least. You get most points for picking the finalists and the champion, but I won without doing it. I have to say I'm ashamed...

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDMAN: ...about that but someone has to win.

BLOCK: And a match up that might not have been predicted if you looked at how poorly both of these schools were doing at various times of the season.

GOLDMAN: Absolutely. Kentucky started with visions of a perfect season. They were a team loaded with top high school talent but they struggled, as freshmen do. Coach John Calipari struggled. By own admission, he made bad coaching moves trying to figure out this team. Less than a month ago, the Wildcats had even fallen out of the Associated Press poll of the top 25 teams.

UConn also fell completely out of the poll. Earlier in season, the Huskies were up and down, lost to Louisville three times, including an 81-48 shellacking at the end the regular season.

BLOCK: And if you look back at last season, Tom, neither of these teams even made it to the NCAA Tournament.

GOLDMAN: Yeah. In fact, tonight is the first time since 1966 that the finalists weren't in the previous tournament. Kentucky wasn't very good. Kentucky lost in the National Invitational Tournament, the NIT. UConn was banned from March Madness because the basketball team had a low academic rating. The Huskies now are meeting the standard, although reportedly they still have a pretty low rating. They're digging their way out.

BLOCK: Tom, we should mention, too, that the Connecticut women's team will be playing in the NCAA title game tomorrow night. What about a quick appraisal of that game?

GOLDMAN: UConn versus Notre Dame, the combined records this season are 76 wins and no losses. Notre Dame is missing a key player in forward Natalie Achonwa. The rest of the team is going to have to pick up the slack. It's going to be a tall order to do against a fantastic UConn team.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Tom Goldman in Arlington, Texas tonight for the men's college basketball championship.

Tom, have fun. Thanks a lot.

GOLDMAN: Thank you.

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