The tip-off marathon, the preseason tournaments, the grind of conference play, the league tournaments, the first three weeks of the big dance -- it's all led us here to Monday night and Kentucky vs. Connecticut. Let's feed your brain before the Wildcats and Huskies tip this final game off in Dallas.
1. UConn and Kentucky have the highest combined seed total of any two national finalists ever
And it's not even all that close. The eighth-seeded Wildcats and seventh-seeded Huskies have combined to demolish the previous high of 11 set three seasons ago when third-seeded UConn took on eighth-seeded Butler for the title.
It's almost impossible to view this championship game as a fight between two history-making Cinderellas, even if that's what the statistics say it is. Not only have Kentucky and Connecticut won two of the last three national championships, but the programs have combined to win six national titles since 1996, as many as any two Division-I programs over that span.
Still, UConn is the first seven seed to ever play for the national title and Kentucky is just the fourth eight seed to advance this far. The only way to truly see this game for what it is on paper is to look at some of the other potential No. 7 vs. No. 8 seed championship games: New Mexico vs. Gonzaga; Memphis vs. Texas; Colorado vs. Oregon. Not exactly the same cachet that Monday night's matchup brings.
2. You're about to see some pretty stellar guards
You would have been able to say this at just about any point during the regular season, but over the past three weeks, the quartet of Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison have all taken their games to another level.
Napier and Boatright are known nationally for their offense, but it's been their ability to harass and frustrate opposing guards that has keyed Connecticut's incredible run to the title game. They forced Michigan State's Keith Appling into one of the worst games of his career (two points, four turnovers), and then followed that performance up by making Scottie Wilbekin of Florida -- who had been playing as well as any guard in the tournament -- register as many turnovers (3) as made field goals and assists combined.
The task is tougher with Kentucky, as the Harrison twins come with size the likes of which UConn hasn't seen so far in the postseason. The Wildcats, conversely, faced a similar matchup in the Sweet 16 when they went up against Louisville's quick and skilled, but also diminutive, backcourt duo of Russ Smith and Chris Jones. The Harrisons struggled to keep Smith and Jones out of the lane for extended periods of time in that game, but were the superior duo when the game was on the line in the final five minutes.
3. But it might be the big guys who decide the outcome
Shabazz Napier was the AAC Player of the Year and a first team All-American according to most outlets, and deservedly so, but his personal success hasn't always translated to team success this season. The same cannot be said for DeAndre Daniels, the 6'9 junior forward who enters Monday night averaging 17.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game in the tournament.
The fact that Daniels has been peaking at the same time as his team is no new trend, as Connecticut is undefeated in 2013-14 when he scores 18 points or more in a game. That stat bodes well for the Huskies if Daniels can somehow duplicate the 20 and 10 performance he gave against Florida on Saturday.
On the flip side, UConn has been susceptible to giving up huge numbers to big and talented post players this season, a pair of attributes that have been used to describe Kentucky's Julius Randle more than a few times. The Huskies rank just 267th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage, a fact which becomes even more terrifying when you combine it with the one which shows that UK grabs the offensive rebound on nearly half of its missed shots. Neutralizing the Harrisons and James Young will mean little if Randle, Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson are turning all of those missed shots into uncontested dunks and lay-ups.
4. The conference champion-national champion streak will be broken
Regardless of who wins Monday night, the 2014 national champion will be a team that didn't win either its conference regular season or tournament championship for the first time since Arizona in 1997...and the Wildcats were playing in a Pac-10 that didn't offer a league tournament back then. The last national champion that played in a conference with a league tournament that didn't win it or its regular season conference title was Kansas in 1988. The Jayhawks are one of only two teams to achieve that feat, joining the 1985 Villanova Wildcats.
NCAA Championship Game
Kentucky has a chance to join both of those history-making squads on Monday night, as UK would be the first team with double-digit losses to win it all since the '88 Jayhawks, and would join the '85 Wildcats as the lowest-seeded team to ever cut down the nets.
5. Connecticut is perfect in title games
The Huskies have taken full advantage of all three of their chances on national championship Monday, upsetting Duke in 1999, beating Georgia Tech in 2004 and handling Butler in 2011. Kentucky is 8-3 all-time in national championship games, with their most recent loss coming in 1997 to Arizona.
6. If it's tight in the final minute, Kentucky is the safe bet
Despite the fact that they're looking to become the first team ever to start five freshmen and win it all, Kentucky has already established itself as one of the most clutch teams in NCAA Tournament history. They've trailed at halftime in their last four games, and either been tied or behind in the final minute of each of those contests. Aaron Harrison has played hero since the Sweet 16, burying the go-ahead three in the final minute against Louisville, and then hitting game-winners in the final five seconds against both Michigan and Wisconsin. All three shots came from the left side of the floor, an area UConn should probably defend if the same situation arises Monday night.
The young Wildcats have become the first team in NCAA Tournament history to win four consecutive games by less than five points. They've won their last four games by a total of 11 points, and their five tournament games by 18.
UConn Eyes History
UConn Eyes History
7. UConn has no McDonald's All-Americans
Despite this being a showdown between two of college basketball's most dominant programs, it's also a game that will feature one team with seven McDonald's All-Americans versus another with zero. If UConn wins, they will become the first national champion in 11 years without a single Burger Boy. Three of the past five national champs have had at least six McDonald's All-Americans, and only the '06 and '07 Florida squads featured fewer than two (Corey Brewer was the lone All-American from that vaunted '04 class).
8. Connecticut would set a dubious record with a win
Less than a month ago, Connecticut ended its regular season by losing 81-48 at Louisville. If UConn were to cut down the nets in Dallas, they would be the first team to do so after losing a regular season game by 30 or more points. The largest regular season margin of defeat for a team that eventually went on to win the national championship is 27 points by the 1964-65 UCLA Bruins. The only squad in the past two decades that lost a regular season game by 20 points or more and went on to win the national title is the 2001-02 Maryland Terrapins, who lost to Duke by 21 in January of that season.
9. From preseason No. 1 to unranked to national champion
If Kentucky beats UConn, the Wildcats will become the first team since (again) Kansas in 1988 to win the national championship after heading into the NCAA Tournament unranked in the final regular season Associated Press Top 25. Remarkably, UK also has the opportunity to become the first preseason No. 1 to win it all since North Carolina achieved the feat in 2008-09.
10. Kevin Ollie could become second debut champion
The only other coach besides Ollie to reach the national championship game in his first NCAA Tournament as a head coach is Steve Fisher, who was named the new front man at Michigan after Bill Frieder agreed to take the job at Arizona State just before the 1989 NCAA Tournament. Fisher then led the Wolverines on an improbable run, which culminated in a dramatic last-second win over Seton Hall in the title game.