ARLINGTON, Texas — They’ve won their last four games by five points or fewer and are one victory away from an NCAA title.
Still, for the Kentucky Wildcats basketball team, the most stunning moment of the postseason occurred not on the court but inside a lounge at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. It was there, moments after the conclusion of the SEC tournament, that the Wildcats watched the NCAA tournament selection show on March 16.
When Kentucky was announced as a No. 8 seed, coaches and players gasped.
“It was a slap in the face to us,” center Willie-Cauley Stein said, and teammate Jon Hood agreed.
“There was no reason for us to be a No. 8,” Hood said.
Saturday’s 74-73 victory over Wisconsin propelled the Wildcats into Monday’s NCAA title game against No. 7 Connecticut. If Kentucky wins, it will tie Villanova as the lowest seed ever to win the championship.
Also, Monday’s title game will feature the lowest combined seeds ever to meet for college basketball’s most coveted crown.
“Rankings,” point guard Andrew Harrison said, “aren’t everything.”
In some ways, Kentucky’s low seed was understandable considering the criteria the selection committee uses to map out the field.
The Wildcats entered the tournament with just three victories against teams that earned berths (Louisville, Providence and Tennessee), and they came up short in marquee nonconference matchups against North Carolina, Michigan State and Baylor.
John Calipari’s team also lost three times to SEC champion and NCAA semifinalist Florida, although it was in a one-point loss to the Gators in the SEC tournament title game when Kentucky really seemed to be making noticeable strides.
One week later, in a round-of-32 victory over No. 1 seed Wichita State, it was clear the Wildcats and their five freshmen starters had discovered the chemistry that had been lacking for most of the season.
“I feel bad for the people ahead of us,” Cauley-Stein said. “We shouldn’t have been an eight seed. Going into the Wichita State game, I thought, ‘They didn’t screw us. They screwed the people ahead of us.’”
Kentucky’s last four wins have come by one, three, five and two points, respectively. Another interesting stat: In each of those wins, the opponents’ ranking in the Associated Press poll has been lower than the previous opponent.
Wichita State is ranked No. 2, Louisville is No. 5, Michigan is No. 7 and Wisconsin is No. 12.
Connecticut ended the regular season ranked No. 18.
Hood said the fact that two teams with such low seedings are playing for the NCAA title says less about the parity in college basketball and more about “bad seeding.”
“(The committee) did Wichita State, Louisville and all those teams in our bracket a disservice,” he said. “We shouldn’t have been a No. 8, and UConn shouldn’t have been a No. 7 after the run they went on at the end of the year.”
Connecticut certainly had some nice wins toward the end of the regular season. The Huskies topped American Athletic Conference co-champion Cincinnati twice in March, but they also dropped a pair of games to Louisville, including one on March 8 by 33 points.
Also, Kevin Ollie’s squad defeated just two teams in non-league play that ended up making the tournament. One was Harvard, and the other was the Florida squad it beat soundly in the other semifinal at AT&T Stadium.
Connecticut is a veteran team that starts two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore. Kentucky played seven freshmen against Wisconsin on Saturday, and none of them seemed overwhelmed by the moment.
“A lot of it has to do with us staying together and not looking at the big picture and saying, ‘It’s the NCAA tournament. It’s the Final Four,’” Cauley-Stein said. “It’s just a game. It’s not this big hoo-rah of an event. That’s how we’ve approached it.”
Sounds like the youthful Wildcats are thinking like a veteran team.
And definitely not a No. 8 seed.
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.