It was the end we probably all should have seen coming, but of course we didn't. After finally buying into Kentucky -- the team that was simultaneously trying to become the first unranked squad to win the title since 1988 and the first preseason No. 1 to achieve the feat since 2009 -- college hoops folks were smacked with one last giant red X to end a season that was always ready to hand one to anyone who thought they had anything figured out.
Connecticut is a team fat with championship worthy storylines. A year ago, the Huskies became easily the most noteworthy program dealt a one-year postseason ban by the NCAA because of subpar APR scores. In addition to keeping UConn out of the dance, the Huskies were also unable to compete in the last (old) Big East Tournament ever. Then there's Kevin Ollie, the man who took over after the sudden retirement of Jim Calhoun and just became only the second coach ever to win a national championship in his first NCAA tournament run. Two years ago, sophomore Shabazz Napier complained publicly that no one on his team would listen to him despite being the only one who tried to step up and lead the struggling defending national champs. Now he leaves UConn as a first team All-American, a conference Player of the Year, the tournament's Most Outstanding Player and a two-time national champion.
Above all this, however, is the angle that Connecticut is the perfect champion for the most impossible to figure out season I can remember.
"But don't people say that about every college basketball season?" Shut up. Sure, unpredictability is one of college basketball's most attractive and defining characteristics, but the insanity edge that 2013-14 carried with it was a different breed. Beautiful, but totally insane. Just like Mila Kunis (I actually don't know anything about Ms. Kunis' personality, but the law of Internet sports writing required me to make a reference to an attractive, contemporary female celebrity in that space).
The complete résumé of the season will drive you to the brink of madness if you attempt to digest it in one sitting.
--Let's go ahead and start with the previously mentioned national champions.
For the bulk of the five month season, Connecticut was simply around. They were a tournament lock, but never a legitimate national championship contender; a team destined to be mostly forgotten by the first hint of summer. They finished fifth in a 10-team AAC that included exactly five legitimate squads (third-seeded SMU didn't even make the NCAA Tournament), and they limped into the big dance coming off their third double-digit loss of the season to Louisville.
Fast-forward three weeks and the Huskies are history-makers. They are the first No. 7 seed to ever cut down the nets, the first non-conference regular-season or tournament champion to win it all since 1997, the first team to go to overtime in their tournament opener (an 89-81 win over No. 10-seeded Saint Joseph's) and then win their next five, and the first team to ever lose a game by more than 27 and wind up being the national champion. The only champion in the past two decades to lose by 20 or more points was the 2002 Maryland Terrapins, who fell to Duke by 21 in January of that season. UConn lost to Louisville by 33 less than a month ago.
--What about the national runners-up?
Kentucky went from a preseason No. 1 with the greatest freshmen class in history and dreams of a 40-0 season to mild disappointment to massive disappointment to being 40 minutes away from coming full circle and winning a national title.
How this Wildcat team will be viewed in 10 years is fascinating to me. This was a group that was ranked No. 1 before the start of the season by every major outlet and wound up finishing No. 2. Logic says that such an achievement should not be met with any great celebration or remembered with a particularly high level of reverence. But this is also a team that was one win away from matching the 1985 Villanova Wildcats as the lowest-seed ever to win it all, and the first unranked squad to do the trick since 1988.
So is this a group of talented freshmen who finally clicked? Is it a group of spoiled, talented freshmen who didn't decide to start trying until the lights got bright? Is it a masterful coaching job by John Calipari to figure out what the fix was and nearly win it all? Or was it a subpar coaching job to take a team with seven McDonald's All-Americans and lose 11 games?
Oh, and then there's also the tiny tidbit that UK's run to the title game was one of the most memorable in the history of the tournament. The Cats became the first team ever to win four straight tourney games by five points or less (also the first team to win four straight tournament games where they were tied or behind at halftime), and they won the last three of those via a dramatic Aaron Harrison three-pointer in the game's final minute.
Kentucky fans, I'm sure, are simply thankful for the journey and will always have a special place in their hearts for this group after the past month. Nationally, however, I'm not sure there's ever been a less clear legacy for a tournament runner-up.
--This was supposed to be the season where the preseason top five -- Kentucky, Michigan State, Louisville, Duke and Kansas -- tossed the recent parity of the sport aside and dominated college basketball in a way we hadn't seen in a long time. Instead, had Kentucky (the lowest-seeded of the five teams) not gone on their dramatic tournament run, this would have been the first time in the history of the AP Poll that no preseason top-five team occupied one of those spots in the season's final poll.
--And then what about those freshmen? The best and deepest freshmen class in a decade was supposed to take the country by storm and make multiple NBA teams think seriously about throwing their seasons once they were out of the playoff race.
In late January and early February, each member of the freshmen trio of Jabari Parker, Tyler Ennis and Andrew Wiggins was generating national Player of the Year buzz and headlining a team that people were penciling into their Final Fours. None of the three would wind up even playing into the second weekend of the tournament.
--If there was a team that was a better microcosm for the season than the two national finalists, it was the one that dominated the champion and couldn't figure out the runner-up. Louisville beat Connecticut three times by a combined 55 points, and lost to Kentucky twice by a total of 12 points. The Cardinals led the nation in margin of victory, won their three AAC Tournament games by a total of 100 points and finished the season No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings. They also consistently struggled in the final five minutes of close games against the few quality opponents they played, a trend which culminated in a Sweet 16 exit.
--We'll never know how good Louisville really was, a sad fact that will also forever be attached to March media darling Michigan State. For the bulk of the season, it felt like the Spartans -- the only squad besides Kentucky that got any serious preseason No. 1 love -- were never going to be as good as we wanted them to be. Then they finally got healthy, rolled through the Big Ten Tournament, and suddenly a No. 4 seed was the media favorite to win it all. MSU did what everyone expected them to do and "upset" top-seeded Virginia in the Sweet 16, and then did what no one expected them to do and laid a total egg in the Elite 8 against Connecticut.
Yet another impossible team to figure out in an impossible to figure out season.
--Oh and did you hear me say Virginia was a No. 1 seed back there? That's because the Cavaliers won both the ACC regular-season and tournament championship. That's ... that's not normal.
--Also, a Wisconsin team known more for its offense than its defense made the Final Four and was two points away from playing for the national title. We probably should have led with that.
--Doug McDermott dominated the national Player of the Year race more thoroughly than any hooper in recent memory. He was the runaway winner of just about every major individual award, and was one vote away from becoming the first ever unanimous Player of the Year selection by The Associated Press.
And yet McDermott is about to head to the professional ranks having never played a single game in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. His Creighton squad fell in the round of 32 for a third straight season, this time via an embarrassing 30-point beatdown at the hands of No. 6-seeded Baylor. Not the way you'd expect the easiest national POY choice in decades to go out.
--The unpredictability of this season wasn't limited to the top of the food chain. Green Bay, Vermont, Davidson and Georgia State were all mid-major squads that dominated their conference in the regular season and were penciled into the big dance by most of us, but all four fell in their league tournament, with only Georgia State even making it to the title game.
Wait until next season
Wait until next season
Regardless of the level of play, we knew nothing.
--But that didn't stop any of us from penning the ledes to our "Florida wins it all" stories heading into Final Four weekend. The Gators became just the fifth team to carry a winning streak of 30-games or more into the national semifinals, and the first since Duke in 1999. UF was the overwhelming favorite to become the third straight No. 1 overall seed to win the national title, and then promptly unleashed their worst game in three months on the final Saturday of the season.
--We haven't even touched on the fascination with Joel Embiid, his subsequent injury, the "awful" SEC nearly squaring off for the title, the "awful" AAC actually winning the title, the difficult-to-fathom seeding of the tournament, Marcus Smart, Nebraska finishing fourth in the Big Ten and, of course, Wichita State becoming the first team to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated since 1991. This post really could have gone on forever ... figuratively ... I think, I'm not really sure of anything anymore.
It was exciting, it was frustrating, it was controversial, it was beyond impossible to predict, and I miss all of it already.
Pour one out for the most beautiful and insane college hoops season in recent memory.