The dust has finally settled, the two teams left standing in this year’s tournament are the Connecticut Huskies and the Kentucky Wildcats. There have been thousands of stories published in the last 24 hours about the two teams that are left, how shocking it is and how no one saw this coming. This isn’t one of those stories, these are two storied programs competing for a championship. It’s not as if this is uncharted territory or if this level of success is new to them. It’s not even a case where there’s been 20 or 30 years between their last appearance in the championship game. Uconn won in 2011 with Kemba Walker leading the way, Kentucky took it all in 2012 with a talented freshman class headlined by Anthony Davis. The 2013 season was bad for both programs; Kentucky lost in the first round of the NIT with a team that never quite clicked, while Uconn was banned from postseason play due to poor APR scores from a team in the past. With both teams in the championship game, it’s evident that the ships were righted rather quickly as they’re playing for the National Championship game. Throw away the seedings, this is a marquee matchup between two of the best programs in the country. So, who wins tonight?
Kentucky finished the regular season at 24-10, due to the hype of this recruiting class many were expecting this team to dominate the regular season. When they struggled early on and then went into a full on slide, the love affair was over. Pundits, experts, fans and more questioned the talent on this roster for nothing more than growing pains. What does matter, is that this team is playing it’s best basketball when it matters most. Their run through this tournament has been nothing short of amazing, John Calipari has done a masterful job adjusting this season. Early on, things weren’t working well and he looked in the mirror versus blaming the kids. The Wildcats started to get better towards the end of the season, with every game played they started to look like a team. As they started to collect wins, the confidence they gained was the seed for this run. They lost to Florida in the SEC tournament, but it was a very close game. The Harrison twins went from very erratic, to one of the most talented backcourts in the nation. Julius Randle has been outstanding from the start of the season on, once the supporting cast met that level of play this team really took off. They start five freshmen and have two playing big minutes off the bench. Instead of letting their youth or lack of experience stop them, they’ve turned it into a positive. They don’t know any better in certain situations, they’re not scared of what will happen. In the last three games played in the tournament, they’ve been in one possession games and they were the team knocking down the big shots. Kentucky took down Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan, with Wisconsin being the latest victim. Youth or not, their talent has helped them earn the right to play in tonight’s game.
Keys to Victory
One of Kentucky’s strengths is their size, from point guard to center they are a very big team. The twins and James Young all stand at 6’6, Julius Randle is a 6’9 250 pound forward and Dakari Johnson is a 265 pound seven footer. That’s without seven foot center Willie Cauley-Stien, they also have 6’8 Alex Poythress and 6’9 Marcus Lee coming off the bench. The Harrison twins have done a great job this tournament, both in running the team and scoring as needed. This is one of the best rebounding teams in the country, sometimes their best offense is an ill-advised shot. Once the shot goes up, there’s a great chance Randle or Johnson is coming down with it. They are also a good defensive team, while they struggle at times to stay disciplined, they have shown the ability to lock down for stretches and get out in transition. While they aren’t a great shooting team from the perimeter, Aaron Harrison has been on a tear lately. He’s hit 14 of his 25 shot attempts from deep, none bigger than the two game winners against Wisconsin and Michigan. They do excel at getting the ball in the paint, Randle and Johnson have made a living scoring at the basket. Randle has averaged a double-double this year with 15 points and 10 rebounds, he’s had a double-double in every game of this tournament but the last one vs Wisconsin. He will definitely need to have more than five rebounds tonight. The twins and Young also have the ability to attack the basket off of the dribble. Here’s what they need to do against Uconn to walk away with the win:
- Pound the ball inside, take advantage of their size
- Don’t settle for jump shots, Uconn will try to keep the ball out of the paint
- Be patient on offense, don’t let the Huskies speed them up
- Take care of the ball, the last thing they want is Napier and Boatright in transition
- OWN THE GLASS, limit Uconn to one shot every trip. Continue to feast off of second chance points
- Don’t over penetrate, spacing will be key
- Stay disciplined on ball screens, Uconn makes a living off of them
This was Kevin Ollie’s second year on the job and the first in which the Huskies were eligible to participate in postseason play. This was also the first season post-Big East conference, Uconn wasn’t expected to do much coming out of the AAC. The Huskies finished the regular season 26-8, with huge losses to SMU, Houston and Louisville. To make them an even “uglier” pick was their 33 point drubbing at the hands of the then reigning champions, the Louisville Cardinals in the regular season finale. Outside of the Connecticut fan base, no one payed much attention to this team. The first name associated with the Huskies was Shabazz Napier, who’s been outstanding this season and every award or accolade thrown his way has been well deserved. Uconn wasn’t bad this season, but playing in the AAC may have hurt their chances to be seen as much as other marquee programs in the country. Ollie, like Calipari, has done a great job putting his players in a position to win. This team has been compared to the 2011 team from the standpoint of having a great lead guard and the supporting cast, they may have had a tougher road then that team. While Shabazz has done much of the heavy lifting, this is more than a one man team. Similar to Kentucky tough road, Uconn had to beat Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State, and Florida to get to this point.
Keys to Victory
Uconn has been a fairly good on the offensive side of the ball all year long, the difference between the regular season and their tournament play? The defense. The Huskies went from having the potential to play good defense to becoming a very good defensive team. The biggest change has been Ryan Boatright, his ability to pressure the ball has been the key. While the starting backcourt lacks size, they make up for it with great speed and quickness. They completely obliterated the backcourts of their last two opponents, that trend needs to continue if the wish to take down the Wildcats. DeAndre Daniels was one of the nation’s top players coming out of high school, he was recruited by Florida and Kentucky amongst several other schools. Daniels has finally come into his own and has seemed to realize his potential, his play in this tournament has been both needed and exceptional. He has to have another great game to get the Huskies past Kentucky, the Huskies have faced several teams with good bigs. They’ve seen Adrien Payne and Patrick Young, none of which will prepare them for Julius Randle. They must limit his production to have a chance. Amidah Brimah and Phil Nolan must play big tonight as well, they must rebound as a team. Kentucky is the second best offensive rebounding team in the country. The Huskies have been one of the better shooting teams from behind the arc all season long(39%), that trend must continue this evening.
- Limit points in the paint
- Pressure the Harrison Twins, make them as uncomfortable as possible
- REBOUND, they have to at least finish close or hold even to the Wildcats on the glass
- Attack the basket, get guards and bigs in foul trouble
- Neils Giffey can’t hesitate to take and make open three point shots
- Bigs must be disciplined in defending Kentucky’s front court
- Get Daniels going early
No matter who wins tonight, it should make for a great game. Two outstanding programs that rebounded from a down year, reclaiming their place in the college landscape. Who do you have, Kentucky or Uconn?? Share your thoughts in the comments below!!