UConn, Purdue set to collide in NCAA championship game

Published 8:17 pm Sunday, April 7, 2024

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The NCAA Tournament has reached its finish line, down to one game pairing the two best teams that routinely win in romps and boasting a marquee post matchup that features a two-time national player of the year.

Maybe that will make this version of March Madness something to remember after all.

Reigning champion UConn meets Purdue on Monday night in a matchup of top seeds that have combined to win their first five tournament games by an average margin of 22.3 points. They have been at the center of a tournament lacking in drama, with its second-highest average margin of victory since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, only one last-second winning shot and few of the highlight-reel thrills that had become a staple of the event.

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Don’t expect the Huskies or Boilermakers to feel the least bit bothered by their dominance, either.

“People that love basketball and people that really know the game, you watch good basketball,” Purdue guard Fletcher Loyer said Sunday. “Obviously the upsets are fun and real cool and they get attention. But real basketball, you like to see the two best teams go at it. And I think that’s what we have here.”

The tournament’s allure remains strong, from casual-at-best basketball fans scribbling out their own bracket projections to TV ratings that keep coming in strong. Yet there’s a short list of unexpected moments this year: namely, Jack Gohlke making 10 3-pointers to help Oakland stun blueblood Kentucky in the first round and North Carolina State’s wild ride as an 11-seed to the program’s first Final Four since the “Cardiac Pack” title run of 1983 under the late Jim Valvano.

As for those last-second shots that live on in tournament lore, the closest this year was KJ Simpson rattling in a baseline jumper with 1.7 seconds left to lift Colorado past Florida 102-100 in Round 1.

Everything else has largely been about UConn’s run to greatness, and Purdue’s march to redemption from last year’s stunning loss to 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson.

“Once you get to this time of year, everything is just you are who your identity is,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “The way you play, it’s very automatic. It just comes down to hoping that it’s your night.”

UConn (36-3) has looked like a runaway train from before the first game in its push to become the first men’s team to repeat as national champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007, and become only the third program to become a repeat winner since UCLA’s run of seven straight under John Wooden from 1967-73.

“The way they’ve won, you know, there’s been some teams that have hung in there with them, then they’ve separated from them,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “There’s some other teams that have gotten flat-out blitzed.”

Last year, UConn became the fifth title winner since the 1985 expansion to win all six games by double-digit margins, the closest coming by 13 points. This year, the No. 1 overall seed has been even more dominant; the Huskies’ closest game was Saturday night’s 86-72 win against Alabama, and they’ve won five games by a combined 125 points — an average of 25 per night.

By comparison, North Carolina in 2009 holds the record for highest points differential of that elite group at 121 points through six games, so another double-figure win by the Huskies to complete a 6-for-6 run would shatter that record.

UConn forward Alex Karaban figures that’s still compelling stuff, too.

“To witness greatness from both teams and to witness greatness from what we did last year, too, I think it’s special,” Karaban said. “And it doesn’t have to be close, doesn’t have to be any of that for it to be March Madness. It can be March Madness … and making history.”

As for the Boilermakers (34-4), they have won five games by an average of 19.6 points, including the 63-50 win against N.C. State in the national semifinals. The only close call was battling from 11 down before halftime to beat Tennessee 72-66 — behind 40 points from 7-foot-4 star Zach Edey —to clinch the program’s first Final Four trip since 1980.

Now they’re in their first title game since their only other appearance, a 1969 loss to Wooden’s Bruins, and Edey will have to tangle with 7-2 defensive force Donovan Clingan.

“It’s cool with me winning by enough points where it’s not that your palms are sweaty, being nervous like that,” Purdue guard Lance Jones said with a broad smile. “So I think having that margin of victory is good.”

But that has also been at the forefront of what has been a blowout-filled tournament.

The average margin of victory in this tournament has been 14.4 points, according to Sportradar. Only the 1993 tournament (14.9 points) has had a higher margin since 1985, and the average margin had been 11.8 points for the previous 29 tournaments.

Now Purdue has the final chance to stop UConn’s March, and maybe have two teams tussling in a compelling finale.

“You give respect to a team like UConn that can go and handle their business and go and beat a team by 15 to 20 every night,” Loyer said. “That’s tough to do and respect to them for it. So it’s making sure we’re ready to go and giving the people a show because it’s the two best teams in college basketball. I don’t know what more you could ask for.”