ARLINGTON, Texas — It seems like ages ago now, but Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein remembers quite vividly his reaction to finding out the Wildcats were given a No. 8 seed on Selection Sunday.
"It was like a slap in the face," Cauley-Stein said. "I felt bad for the people ahead of us. I mean, we shouldn't have been an 8 seed.
"They didn't screw us; they screwed the people ahead of us."
That would be No. 1 seed Wichita State, a casualty of Kentucky's round-of-32 game. Then, No. 4 Louisville, which the Wildcats beat in the Sweet 16. No. 2 Michigan went down in the Elite Eight, the victim of a game-winning shot from Aaron Harrison. Another No. 2, Wisconsin, met the same fate in the Final Four.
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Kentucky's next opponent is a team that's done much of the same thing.
No. 7 Connecticut's path to Monday night's national championship included wins against No. 1 seed Florida, No. 2 Villanova, No. 3 Iowa State and No. 4 Michigan State.
It will be the first time a No. 7 and No. 8 seed face off for a national title, and the highest combined seeding of any championship game in NCAA tournament history.
Neither team is a Cinderella or a program unfamiliar with this stage – but it remains a rather unlikely pairing.
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Connecticut was barred from the NCAA tournament last season due to poor academic standing; Kentucky missed the event after a disappointing regular season. Monday's championship game will be the first since 1966 featuring two teams that were not in the NCAA tournament the previous season.
Neither Connecticut nor Kentucky inspired much confidence in this sort of run during the regular season, either. Southern Methodist, a team that did not make the NCAA tournament, swept the Huskies. The young Wildcats were wildly inconsistent and incapable of beating elite teams all regular season, in which they were swept by Arkansas and suffered an embarrassing loss to South Carolina.
And yet, somehow, some way, these two teams got on a roll quite unlike anything we've seen during one of the craziest NCAA tournaments in recent memory.
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"What I think people fail to understand is that teams get better throughout the year," Georgia coach Mark Fox said. "There's so much weight on November games, for instance, and almost less of a emphasis put on league games. Teams in the non-conference have to establish the league's power reputation. Teams are going to change and keep getting better.
"Kentucky's much better today than they were in December. Teams come into their own and improve throughout the year; Kentucky, with a chance to win it, is perfect evidence of that."
Seeding, however, doesn't take a strong finish into consideration. The Division I men's basketball committee – the group responsible for selecting, seeding and bracketing – evaluates teams based on their entire body of work.
So, despite Kentucky players' assertion that they should have been seeded higher, and Connecticut freshman Terrence Samuels' belief that the Huskies could have landed a No. 5 seed, plenty see the reasoning behind the No. 7 and No. 8.
"I think it was the right fit at the time," Connecticut senior Tyler Olander said. "We hadn't had a stellar regular season. We lost to Louisville a couple of times pretty bad. SMU beat us twice, and they didn't even make the tournament. We were happy to be a part of it, to be honest.
"After that, it's just a number, just a ranking that somebody gives you."
Those who handed down those seeds feel confident in their choices, even though the No. 7-8 matchup is unprecedented. When asked if the pairing made him re-evaluate any seeding decisions, committee chairman Ron Wellman said he "didn't think so."
"It reflects the parity in college basketball, and the fact that these teams have improved throughout the year," Wellman said. "Kentucky, from where they started and even the way they performed late in the year – South Carolina – they still weren't performing like they are right now. The committee's job is to look at the entire season and kind of determine where they deserve. … We knew the talent was there; that was very, very obvious. If they all came together and played as they did now, they could in fact be in the championship game.
"It's not all that surprising. We felt we seeded them where they deserved."
Wellman said, despite fans clamoring about Kentucky's region of the bracket – some called it the Region of Death because it featured three of last season's Final Four teams – he and other selection committee members are confident that regions were balanced and nothing was unfair for the No. 1 seed in that part of the region, Wichita State.
"As long as we are following the principles of bracketing and seeding, we feel we are on solid ground," Wellman said. "That isn't to say at the end we didn't look back and say, 'Oh, jeez, look at this, look at this matchup, look what could happen if they go to the Sweet 16, look at these games potentially in the Elite Eight.' We do that, but we don't go back and change any bracketing as a result of what those potential games are.
"The whole idea of the conspiracy theory and all of that has nothing to do with this. That conversation has never taken place during our seeding or bracketing."
Even so, the two teams used the perceived snubs however they saw fit.
"I don't think there are two more deserving teams," Olander said. "I give Kentucky so much credit. People doubted them all season, just like people had doubted us."
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