ARLINGTON, Texas — When No. 8 seed Kentucky and No. 7 seed Connecticut meet in the NCAA Tournament national championship tonight, the game will feature the two lowest seeded teams to ever play for a national championship. It is also the first title matchup in 48 years between teams that didn't make the tournament the previous season.
Based on the way the Wildcats and Huskies were playing toward the end of the regular season, a title game between them might have seemed impossible.
Kentucky opened the year with five heralded freshmen who were predicted to win it all, but the Wildcats struggled all season and lost four of their last seven games before the NCAA Tournament began. That included a loss to South Carolina, which won just five conference games, and an 18-point loss to LSU, which won nine SEC games.
The Huskies lost by 33 to Louisville in the regular-season finale, then lost again to the Cardinals in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
If you're among the millions of college basketball fans that didn't see this one coming, don't feel bad.
"Being an eight seed, I don't think we deserved an eight seed," Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison said. "But it doesn't matter now. If we are an eight seed, who would expect an eight seed to be here? If I was filling out a bracket, I wouldn't put an eight seed in the championship game."
Kentucky coach John Calipari isn't making a big deal out of the seedings because he believes his team was under-seeded, despite losing nine regular-season games and finishing the regular season unranked.
"I don't think we were an eight seed, and I don't think Connecticut was a seven seed," he said.
The Kentucky players said seeding aside, they aren't the least bit surprised they are playing for a championship.
"We just had too much talent, and we saw in spurts how good we could be, so it just felt like it was a matter of time before we clicked," freshman forward Julius Randle said.
For both Kentucky and UConn, those rough patches along the way have helped pave the road to the final game.
UConn lost to AAC champion Louisville three times by a combined 55 points. After one of those losses, coach Kevin Ollie pulled out the video of a Dec. 2 win over Florida, which had risen to No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, to remind his players of what they were capable of. Ollie said he never doubted playing in tonight's game was possible, even after that 33-point loss on March 8.
"I knew we were going to fight," he said. "I know we are fighters. When we got back on that bus and we got back to practice, I could see the look in their eyes, and dark times are what promotes you. … We got better from it."
Kentucky lost to SEC champ Florida three times this season, but it was the Wildcats' play in the conference tournament championship game and one-point loss to the Gators that helped fuel their NCAA Tournament run.
"After the SEC tournament, even though we didn't win it, we felt like the way we played in that tournament we could do it in this tournament," center Dakari Johnson said. "And that's what we did. We just listened to Coach and it really helped us. We benefited from that tournament."
Now they hope to continue that late-season success for one more game.
"If we are the champions (tonight), it will be because we did it together, played hard and trusted each other," Randle said.