- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- There is a place for logic and common sense in the world. Sports isn’t always one of those places.
But if you’ve watched UConn in the past three weeks -- heck if you’ve watched basketball the past three weeks -- you know that strange things happen in March. No one expected Connecticut to beat Saint Joseph’s, let alone the four teams that came after. On paper there were very good, sane reasons to think UConn wouldn’t be able to beat Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State and Florida.
Paper, though, can tell you only so much. Teams win in this NCAA tournament with attitude as much as aptitude.
Both Connecticut and Kentucky were essentially counted out as recently as a month ago and not without merit. The Huskies lost by 33 to Louisville; the Wildcats were a train wreck in the SEC.
And then suddenly the magic of March reared its head. They won and winning is a dangerous aphrodisiac. It breeds maybe the most valuable tool in NCAA play -- confidence.
Both Connecticut and Kentucky are riding that confidence train into Monday’s national championship game, but the Huskies’ ride has been decidedly smoother.
Unlike the Wildcats, who are making defibrillators with champagne chasers in Kentucky, the Huskies -- save the overtime win against Saint Joseph’s -- have won with relative ease.
Which isn’t logical, either. With all of the talent, Kentucky ought to be winning more easily than UConn.
Which is why I’ll go with the unlikely, illogical, borderline nonsensical pick and say Connecticut cuts down the nets Monday.
As to the more practical hows and whys, well, there’s some of that, too.
The path to victory
Connecticut will win this game the way the Huskies have won every game in this NCAA tournament -- with their defense. The Huskies are limiting teams to 39 percent shooting from the floor in the postseason and just 65.8 points, plus forcing 13.2 turnovers per game.
Michigan State and Florida couldn’t even get out of the 50s against the Huskies.
Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, with a little help from Terrence Samuel, have guarded the perimeter like it’s an electric shock collar zone. No one is allowed entry. Michigan State’s Keith Appling and Travis Trice were frustrated into near absenteeism in the Elite Eight game; Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin had more turnovers against the Huskies (three) than he had in the Gators’ previous four NCAA tournament games combined (two).
As good as the Harrison twins have been for Kentucky in this postseason, the Wildcats are still averaging 10.5 turnovers and aside from Louisville, haven’t met anyone with a backcourt quite like Connecticut’s. The Huskies’ ability to disrupt things in the backcourt almost serves as a defensive blockade. There’s a reason Michigan State had only six measly paint points against UConn. The Spartans couldn’t get the ball inside.
If the Huskies can do the same against Kentucky, it will negate the Wildcats’ obvious advantage -- the big men.
Amida Brimah and Phillip Nolan will have their hands full with Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee. There’s no getting around that. The more lithe Huskies are an OK rebounding team for one that’s so small, but OK doesn’t work against Kentucky. The Wildcats are absolute beasts on the boards and use the backboard as an assist maker, the setup to easy shots or trips to the free throw line.
One-on-one, UConn will be at a disadvantage, but if the Huskies’ guards can make it difficult to get the ball inside that makes life a lot easier on the blocks.
That, of course, takes care of only one half of the floor. Eventually the Huskies will have to score.
That task used to fall solely into Napier’s hands. That’s no longer the case. Aside from the vastly improved defense, the single most critical thing to happen to UConn in this postseason is that more Huskies are scoring more frequently.
Both Boatright’s and DeAndre Daniels’ numbers are up in the tournament, which has taken the heat off of Napier. Daniels’ emergence has been especially critical.
Prior to the NCAA tournament, Daniels was averaging 12.5 points per game and shooting 43.4 percent from the floor.
Since then, he’s scoring 17.6 and hitting 46.4. It was Daniels, not Napier, who got the Huskies going when they trailed Florida by 12, and Daniels who is keeping teams honest when they want to worry about guarding only the Huskies’ guards.
The truth is, UConn will be a big underdog in this game. No matter what the stats say, no matter how their confidence appears, the Huskies don’t have what Kentucky has in terms of sheer talent.
But that’s just being logical.
And sports isn’t always a good place for that.