The best team isn't going to win.
And that's fine.
Such is the appeal of the NCAA Tournament, the most grueling gauntlet in sports: There is only one winner stashed in a pack of 68 cards, and the winner's card seems to be pulled almost at random. How else to explain this 2014 edition, which has spat out the first No. 7 seed to make the Final Four since the field expanded to 64 teams, the first championship game between a No. 7 seed and a No. 8 seed in history, and the highest combined seeding of the two teams in the NCAA Tournament final? It's still yet to produce the lowest-seeded national champion ever — but, by midnight, it could; if Kentucky wins, it'll join the 1985 Villanova team as the only No. 8 seeds to win the title.
NCAA Championship Game
NCAA Championship Game
The NCAA Tournament is not the best way to determine the best team in college basketball, and it isn't designed to be. Doing that in any sort of reliable fashion would require the sorts of sample sizes that would extend the season to June — and given how often the tournament as it currently exists puts the lie to "student-athlete," that's never going to happen. What the NCAA Tournament does determine is which one team was good enough to win six straight games against good teams.
There's never been an undeserving national champion. There never will be. That doesn't mean the best team wins.
UConn and Kentucky will most certainly be deserving.
UConn's beaten three teams in the KenPom top 20 (Florida, Michigan State, Villanova) to be here, and four of the KenPom top 21 (Iowa State and the aforementioned three teams). The Huskies have had to deal with Michigan State's Adreian Payne and Florida's Patric Young inside, and Villanova's James Bell and Iowa State's DeAndre Kane outside. They had to come back against Saint Joseph's, and play without Shabazz Napier against Villanova, and fend off a late run against Iowa State by making most of their free throws, and shut down Michigan State, and make up a 16-4 deficit against Florida.
But if Saint Joseph's had played even a little better down the stretch in its overtime loss to the Huskies, UConn would not be here.
Kentucky has been incrementally "luckier," in one sense, despite being a lower seed: The Wildcats have so much talent — manifested mostly in athleticism and height — that they match up better against most teams than UConn does against its foes.
But they've also knocked off four teams popularly conceived of as national title contenders entering the NCAA Tournament, all in the sorts of games between two teams with similar statistical profiles coming in that appear to be little more to coin flips.
And those games turned into close ones down the stretch, too: All four have been decided by five points or fewer, and three by a single possession. Aaron Harrison threes have been so crucial to those wins — winning the Wisconsin and Michigan games in the final seconds, giving Kentucky the lead for good against Louisville and helping Kentucky shoot it out with Wichita State late — that a single miss on any of his makes at any point in a second half in this NCAA Tournament may well have knocked Kentucky out.
Kentucky's been great over the last three weeks, but only marginally greater than every team it's played in its last four games. That's all Kentucky's been able to do. It's all Kentucky's needed to do.
And, furthermore, UConn and Kentucky wouldn't have even needed to win all the close games against good teams that they have had to play over the last three weeks had they been better against the teams they played over the previous three months. UConn lost to Houston. Kentucky lost to South Carolina. One of those two teams will be able to claim a win over the national champion; one of Louisville (which beat UConn three times) or Florida (which beat Kentucky three times) will be able to claim a 3-0 record against the national champion.
No apologies should be made for beating the teams beaten on the way to a title in this event. There are no easy roads to "One Shining Moment," especially not of late.
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
The Killers' "Shot At the Night" has droned again and again during this tournament — I've probably heard it no fewer than 30 times across the dozens of hours I've spent watching games in person and on television over the last three weeks — and though I don't really think of it as music at this point, the lyrics are perfect for the NCAA Tournament. "Once in a lifetime," "give me a moment, some kind of mysterious," "draw me a lifeline, 'cause honey, I got nothing to lose" — these are phrases from the lingua franca of sports' most beloved manufacturer of moments, NCAA Tournament Inc., and the middle manager responsible for marrying song and spectacle probably deserves the raise that is coming.
But the desperation that we associate with "March Madness" isn't just a slogan. Every player is trying, every coach exhorting, every fan willing her team to victory. I clapped so hard my hands stung even late in Florida's Final Four loss to UConn on Saturday; I saw desperation turn to despondence from N.C. State and Manhattan and Saint Louis fans in Orlando.
We would not watch or revere the NCAA Tournament as we do without that desperation and drama; we call games in which teams win by 15 points or maintain solid leads throughout "boring" or worse. Those are the games, though, that more effectively demonstrate one team's superiority over the other.
The ideal run for a national champion is probably something like the ones that UConn and Kentucky are currently on, with enough rigor to provide gristle for the useless arguments about deserving the title, enough drama to be memorable for years beyond this one, and enough wins to survive and advance. It feels better, and sweeter, when it's "hard-earned" or "close" wins that pave the road to lifting a trophy, but that's because we ascribe more valor to "clutch" play in "deciding" moments; that's a recency bias we'll never fully shake, even as more and more people realize that the first three of a game scores the same three points as the last one.
But the ideal NCAA Tournament run for the best team in the country wouldn't include any close games: It would just be one surpassing team winning game after game by double digits, or by 20 points, and draining the drama that makes the NCAA Tournament fun. There would be little or no doubt about the better team in each game that team played, and thus little or no doubt about that team being the best in the country.
Those teams are rare indeed, blessed with talent and good fortune in equal measure. They are bad for business.
This, the system that makes it harder to know the best team for certain, is better.