The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball title games are a pair of firsts. The men’s teams are the lowest seeds ever to meet for a national championship, while the women’s teams are the first two undefeated squads to face off in a title game.
The men’s tournament wraps up tonight, when the No. 8 seed University of Kentucky takes on the No. 7 seed University of Connecticut at 9 p.m. EDT at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The women’s title game will pit UConn (39-0) against the University of Notre Dame (37-0) at 8:30 p.m. EDT on Tuesday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
But these teams and their coaches didn’t set out to create history. To get here, each coach has fought a unique combination of egos, injuries, and expectations. Here’s a snapshot of the leaders behind the teams:
Kevin Ollie. The UConn men’s coach is in only his second year after replacing legend Jim Calhoun. “I can never fill Coach Calhoun’s shoes,” Ollie told reporters. His school and his players were banned from the tournament last year for poor academic performance. UConn (31-8) lost this year’s regular season finale 81-48 before running to the Final Four and beating Florida on Saturday, 63-53.
Ollie told his players he could not build a great program, but he and they could sustain the excellence Calhoun left behind. Senior Shabazz Napier bought in. He could have left UConn for the National Basketball Association, but he promised his mother he would graduate. “It’s about creating great young men,” Ollie said, “so they can go out there in their community after they leave the … campus and be ambassadors of their family, of their name, of this great university.”
John Calipari. The Kentucky men’s squad (29-10) has fought its share of demons, too. Calipari blamed himself throughout the tournament for letting his team down early in the season. He did a poor job defining players’ roles, he said, and struggled to adjust his offense to their strengths. All of his five starters are freshmen.
“We all just needed to get on the same page,” said freshman Aaron Harrison, who’s made game-winning baskets in the last two games. “Coach emphasized being able to play for each other, and I think that’s what we started doing. We didn’t know how to do that at first. We were all the stars of high school and shot the ball 25 times [per game].”
The team’s run in the NCAA tournament—beating three of last year’s Final Four teams, with a 74-73 win over the University of Wisconsin on Saturday—almost makes up for the 10 losses, Calipari said. “They have finally surrendered and lost themselves in the team,” he said after Kentucky beat the University of Louisville in the Sweet 16. “It’s just taken us a long time.”
Geno Auriemma. The UConn women’s basketball coach is going for his ninth national championship, which would place him one title short of UCLA great John Wooden. The Huskies have won 44 games in a row. UConn had the tougher Final Four matchup Sunday, beating Stanford by 19 points.
“It’s hard for us to get cocky when you have a coach … who kind of lets you know your weaknesses and makes sure you work on them all the time,” UConn senior guard Bria Hartley said. “He makes sure you really stay kind of hungry and wanting to get better rather than getting complacent.”
Muffet McGraw. Notre Dame’s coach has guided the Fighting Irish women’s basketball team to four straight Final Fours. Always playing the team game, Notre Dame beat Maryland 87-61 Sunday, even after losing senior leader Natalie Achonwa to a knee injury in the regional final. “She’s so intense and on us,” senior Kayla McBride said of McGraw. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. She wants us to do the same thing against every single team.”