NASHVILLE — Numbers are thrown around faster than crumpled up brackets this time of year. Call it one-and-done or, as John Calipari, with the propriety of a snake oil salesman, calls it, "succeed and proceed." Whatever term you choose, Kentucky will start five freshmen Monday night in the national championship game against UConn, and all five could be gone to the NBA in weeks.
On the other side of the chromosomal court, Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw, who has beaten Geno Auriemma in seven of the past nine meetings, brings a perfect season into the national championship game against UConn on Tuesday night.
In between, the NCAA is girding for a battle over players unionizing and facing hard decisions on the autonomy of the five power conferences. Assign any number you wish to the future landscape of college athletics, but precede all of them with a $.
From seeding formulas to defensive efficiency metrics, yes, it is numbers, numbers, numbers. Yet here's the stat nobody should ignore today:
UConn is 11-0 in national championship games.
The women are 8-0. The men are 3-0.
And as the UConn men's and women's basketball teams stand together, on the precipice of accomplishing something only their predecessors from a decade ago did, it strikes me that UConn has the numbers this week to grab control of its own national storyline — even if it cannot evoke immediate change.
When Jim Calhoun and Auriemma climbed to the top of the college basketball world in 2004 — forever together, forever apart — the story of their remarkable building job in tiny Storrs was told and retold and told and retold. A decade later, those stories are, to be frank, tiresome. A decade later, the onus should be on the grand pooh-bahs of collegiate sports to explain why they shouldn't start treating UConn as the powerhouse it is.
Again. Big game: UConn 11, The Other Guys 0.
This space in Tuesday's newspaper will be dedicated to the final chapter of Shabazz Napier's career, the final chapter of a remarkable season when Kevin Ollie has convinced everyone that the impossible is possible.
On Wednesday, it will be dedicated to Auriemma's destiny to break Pat Summitt's record of nine national championships.
Yet Monday's paper is another argument for those who run the multi-billion dollar industry of college sports — Jim Delany, John Swofford, Mark Emmert et al — to open their eyes. There is a small number of schools, led by UConn, that are willing to pay to try to run with the big boys in football, who beat the big boys at basketball, yet have been failed by a system to be included to this point among the powerful elite. It is not only monopolistic, it smacks of a cruel conference boys club. Vanderbilt? You're in. UConn? Sorry.
The final days of the Final Four present an opportunity that should not be missed.
Dual championships only one year after the men weren't even allowed in the NCAA Tournament? The women taking the lead — maybe forever — for most national championships won?
These are powerful stories, meaningful stories.
"UConn is going do what it takes to maintain greatness," said athletic director Warde Manuel, who is bouncing between Dallas and Nashville. "We're going to continue to recruit and coach our athletes to win championships.
"This week is huge. It's huge for each program. It's huge in combination that we're doing this for the fourth time to compete for two national championships. It sends a message to everyone that the greatness of UConn basketball remains."
At the news conference with the NCAA hierarchy Sunday in Dallas, Emmert was asked the following question: "Do you have any feelings about a team that was sanctioned with APR penalties last year being in the title game so quickly and are you pleased at that? Maybe disappointed the penalties didn't have a bigger impact?"
Although few pounded UConn any harder on its APR than me, the truth is some old numbers convicted the men's basketball team, and UConn has totally righted its academic ship over three years. In the end, you certainly can conclude UConn got what it deserved, but to in any way to suggest the school deserved even more punishment is ludicrous.
"The reality is University of Connecticut, as we all know, had really abysmal APR performance for a consistent period of time," Emmert said. "They had to achieve, in relatively short order, essentially a 1,000 APR, perfect APR score. The university, they have got a new president, new coach, new AD, and they were deeply committed to making those changes and they have done it. It's actually very impressive.
"And to also see that team hold together … they could have bolted for other programs and they didn't. They stayed there. They did the work that they were supposed to do. They're being successful at it. I was provost and chancellor [at UConn]. As the former chief academic officer, it was painful to watch them go through those kinds of issues and I'm delighted that they're doing well, not just on the court, but in the classroom."
The way Napier stayed and made so many big shots is a huge story. The way Ryan Boatright has transformed from an overpenetrating, sometimes out-of-control offensive player into a cobra-like defensive player and unselfish distributor is a huge story. The way DeAndre Daniels has blossomed is a huge story. Yet the way the team has rushed under Ollie to the threshold of a fourth national title, while so drastically turning around its academic performance, is the hugest story of all.
Calipari's talk about a team 3.0 GPA and solid APR numbers is self-aggrandizing when he is making use of a one-and-done loophole, but, hey, he's using the rules the NCAA has legislated. Yet if Kentucky's methods are tolerated, UConn should be applauded.
Overall, UConn was ranked the No. 19 public university in the nation in the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings, ahead of Maryland and Rutgers, which beat UConn to the Big Ten, ahead of Purdue, Minnesota, Michigan State, Iowa, Indiana and Nebraska, already in the Big Ten.
Over the weekend, columnist Phil Mushnick of the New York Post chose to strike at Ollie's grammar as part of an attack on the larger academic woes of college basketball. He wrote, "It seems to bother a lot of emailing folks — especially Connecticut taxpayers — that UConn's second-season, UConn-educated and graduated basketball coach, Kevin Ollie, as a representative of the state's namesake university and a school that in 2012 was sanctioned for gross academic negligence, is so painfully deficient in fundamental, spoken grammar."
With almost preacherlike cadence, with so many messages within his delivery, Ollie is an effective communicator. He sure as heck explained to his team how to rip the heart out of Michigan State's and Florida's offenses. Does Ollie sometimes mangle the language? Can he improve? Yes. Then again, as someone who loves the language, I watch myself spitting and stammering during television appearances at times and I feel like throwing up.
The point is Ollie has played an incalculable role in the growth of his players. In the classroom, on the court, in life, the man's passion changes lives. The last thing he should have to defend on a Final Four weekend is mistakes in subject/verb agreements. Trying to tie to bad sentence structure to poor APR numbers of the past is a regrettably simplistic leap.
Auriemma, of course, has zero problem saying precisely what he means. His season will come down to Tuesday night. In a battle of unbeatens, the UConn women look to become first women's team to win nine national championships. To his credit, Auriemma has refused to saying anything even remotely snarky about the old Tennessee-UConn feud. He said over the weekend that it wouldn't mean more to him to break Summitt's record in Tennessee.
"Don't get me wrong," he said, "if Pat were still coaching and Tennessee was in the Final Four, it would be different."
She isn't. Summitt is fighting early-onset Alzheimer's. She has been out of the game for a few years. It is a terrible blow.
Look, UConn has made its share of enemies in the past, and some of it is deserved. On the biggest stage this week, the school needs to stress how resilient it has been, how far it has come and how classy it can be.