No. 1 UConn vs. No. 1 Purdue: A March Madness matchup for the ages to decide the national title

GLENDALE, Ariz. – If this were Christmas, one might say we’ve been good boys and girls all year, because we have been granted the gift that has been dancing in our heads for months, that has been on every single wish list.

This is March Madness, though, which some might say is even better.

Purdue vs. UConn.

No. 1 seed vs. No. 1 seed.

Zach Edey vs. Donovan Clingan.

Dan Hurley vs. Matt Painter.

UConn vs. history.

Purdue vs. its own history.

Is that more than one present? Or is it all rolled into a single package? The accounting does not matter, until they start trading baskets toward a final score. Let’s simply appreciate what we’ve been granted, how rare and extraordinary it is to be anticipating this game Monday night for the NCAA Championship.

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UConn gave the college basketball world what it wanted by surging from a 56-all tie against No. 4 seed Alabama with 12:41 left in the game into an 11-2 run that saw the Crimson Tide recede into elimination. That run included two free throws and a beautiful floater from freshman wing Steph Castle, an electric give-and-go between shooter Cam Spencer and backup big Samson Johnson that resulted in a slam, then Karaban following a missed corner 3-pointer by Castle for a 64-56 advantage.

Those who wondered how UConn would handle being in a close game with enormous stakes saw the Huskies outscore the opposition 30-16 in those final dozen minutes and change. The final read UConn 86, Alabama 72, but it was a battle the whole way.

“Everyone came to UConn to try to be a part of history,” Clingan said. “We’re one step closer to our goal. But none of us in this locker room are satisfied. We know we have a lot of work to do, a big matchup on Monday.”

Purdue (34-4) and UConn (36-3) have been the two best teams in college basketball all season – the Boilermakers with the unassailable resume that includes a Big Ten regular-season title and eight victories over teams that reached the Sweet 16, the Huskies with the unsurpassed performance that now features five consecutive March Madness victories by at least 14 points and only four single-digit margins among their 25 wins this calendar year. It is only the ninth time in the expanded bracket era we’ve had two No. 1 seeds in the final.

Edey stands 7-4 and Clingan 7-2, each a projected first-round pick in NBA mock drafts. It is the first championship-game matchup of 7-foot centers since Patrick Ewing of Georgetown was challenged by Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon exactly 40 years ago in Seattle, with the Hoyas prevailing.

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“Yeah, I’m real excited. You play at this level to play big-time matchups, big-time games. I have a lot of respect for Zach Edey. He’s a great player,” Clingan told reporters. “Me and my team are going to get ready to battle and give everything we got on Monday.”

Hurley is the reigning championship coach who fought to build a successful career against the shadows cast by his father Bob (a high school coach so extraordinary he’s enshrined in the Naismith Hall of Fame) and his brother Bobby (a point guard so sublime he ranks among the greatest college players, ever).

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Painter is the first-time finalist who fought through bad breaks, injuries and missed chances that maybe cost him trips to the Final Four in 2010, 2018 and 2019 and at last arrived where his talent and drive indicated he belonged. He did this a year after becoming only the second coach ever to preside over a No. 1 seed losing a first-round NCAA Tournament game to a No. 16. The previous one, Virginia’s Tony Bennett, returned the following year and won the whole thing.

Connecticut is attempting to become only the eighth program in history to repeat as champion, but the first in recorded history to achieve this after losing 75 percent of the team’s scoring from the title season. UCLA mounted a seven-year title run while turning the program among superstars Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sidney Wicks and Bill Walton, but even going from one of those legends to the next never had so much of its team depart.

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Florida (2006 and 2007) and Duke (1991 and 1992), the most recent teams to win consecutive titles, returned their squads almost entirely intact and were able to improve from the experience of playing a season together and winning big.

This UConn team lost its starting center and two of the three players on the perimeter, as well as two key reserves, and actually conjured a far more impressive record and season.

“I think we just stayed true to our identity. The coaches preach every day: If we focus on the defense and the rebounding, everything else can go our way,” power forward Alex Karaban, one of the two current Huskies who started last year’s title game, told reporters. “It really starts on the defensive end with us, get out in transition. Offensively we’re so unselfish. We’ll pass up good shots for great shots. We have so much trust in one another.

“Coach Hurley, never let the returners be complacent with what happened last year. The new guys are hungry for what we did last year, to have that feeling. There’s no let off.”

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