The NCAA tournament is down to two unlikely but familiar finalists. NPR's Rachel Martin talks with Slate's Mike Pesca for his take on Monday's championship game.
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The college basketball season has come down to one final winner take all game. And unless you are a bit of a bracketology genius, your NCAA bracket was long gone before Kentucky and Connecticut won their way to the title game. How unlikely is this year's championship pairing? On ESPN's bracket challenge, 1,780 brackets picked these two to be in the finals. So just to put it into context, that is out of more than 11 million entrants, and that is .0002 percent. Just for the record. But while Kentucky and Connecticut are mathematical long shots, how unexpected is this year's final? Who better to ask than Slate.com's Mike Pesca? Good morning, sir.
MIKE PESCA: Hello.
MARTIN: Hello. So an eight seed playing a seven seed for the national title. This is kind of exceptional, no?
PESCA: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Those up - that's the highest number that's ever been in the championship. Another way to put it is, in - since 1985 when Villanova, as an eight seed, became the lowest seed ever to win the championship, there have been two teams seeded seven or lower ever to play the championship game. And this year, we're getting two teams seven or lower in the same year playing in the championship game.
MARTIN: That's crazy.
PESCA: And it's kind of - that's one of those hinky stats where I do have clarify that a seven - UConn's a seven - has never played in the championship game. So it's really, really unusual, unless you've been paying attention to exactly who these teams are and exactly what NCAA basketball is like because even though, UConn, to start the tournament, was rated a less than 1 percent chance to win the championship by sites like FiveThirtyEight, which does this great statistical analysis. And Kentucky had a 2 percent chance. They're great teams with great traditions who are playing great this time of year.
MARTIN: I mean, UConn upsetting Florida - that's crazy.
MARTIN: Is this going to be remembered as the year of the Cinderella?
PESCA: I think they all have been. See - OK. So one of the unusual things is, even though it's a seven and an eight and these are the lowest seeded teams, both these teams have huge national fan bases, which is one reason that ESPN bracket site - that stat that you cited - is probably a little higher than it normally would be for a seven and eight 'cause there are just thousands of people who are putting Kentucky in the final no matter what. That's how much they love Kentucky. And UConn's a pretty popular team, too. But yeah. I mean, one way to look at it is going into the tournament, U - Conneticut was 100 to 1 shot, and Kentucky was a 40 to 1 shot. But you know what? In the beginning of the season, Kentucky was the number one rated team.
So they're a Cinderella because during the year they got - kind of got worse and worse and worse. And it wasn't their lowest point that they were going into the tournament, but if you had, like, a time line graph of how likely they were to win, they started the year as the most likely, somewhere in the middle of the season they were extremely unlikely and now they're extremely likely to win it. So this just goes to show a couple things. But one of the things is, Kentucky, which is full of freshman, you know...
PESCA: something like 20 percent of those kid's games - the six games have been the tournament - 15 percent. I mean, you just get better. Young kids just get better.
MARTIN: Lower the expectations to exceed them. Rules to live by.
PESCA: Yeah. That's one way that Calipari could do it. I will also say this, that John Calipari, who is known for recruiting the best class of freshmen, you know, people think, oh, it's not fair. I think it's totally fair and playing by the rules. But how will he ever, in the future, when he does this and gets, like, five of the best high school seniors to come play for him - how will he ever convince them to try hard during the regular season, right? They'll just be like, oh, in 2014, those kids just turned it on in March. Poor John Calipari.
MARTIN: OK. You've got a curveball?
PESCA: I do. And my curveball is kind of about a fastball, but the slowest of the fastballs. So Mark Buehrle is a pitcher on the Toronto Blue Jays. Other than his teammate, R.A. Dickey, who is a knuckleballer - which is like kind of a magician of pitchers, and his ball dances - Mark Buehrle has the slowest average fastball in the major leagues. And earlier this week, in his first start of the season, he struck out 11 Tampa Bay Rays, which is only the second time he ever had more than 10 strikeouts. But Mark Buehrle does this with location and kind of fooling the umpires into getting every borderline call 'cause he's so accurate. And people don't know this - he is third among active pitchers - he has 187 wins. And he is one of the slowest pitchers in baseball.
MARTIN: Slow, but good. Like you. Mike Pesca of Slate.com...
PESCA: What? What?
MARTIN: No, you're fast. You're fast.
PESCA: I'll take the good part. Yeah.
MARTIN: You can hear him every week on their "Hang Up and Listen" podcast. Thanks so much, Mike.
PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.