Don't let UConn, Kentucky seeds fool you
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Texas-Colorado. New Mexico-Gonzaga. Oregon-Memphis.
Wait -- what?
That seemingly random list of imaginary matchups is, in fact, a sampling of the possible No. 7-versus-No. 8 national title matchups in the 2014 NCAA tournament bracket. They are, strictly based on tournament seeding, the equivalent of what we'll see in Monday night, when No. 7 UConn faces No. 8 Kentucky with the national title on the line.
That's where the similarities stop.
Save the seeds next to their names, absolutely nothing feels out of place about Monday night's season finale. Connecticut won the national title in 2011; Kentucky won it in 2012. Both programs are household names. Both teams have a wealth of talent. And both teams have outplayed -- not just upset, but genuinely outplayed -- respective handfuls of national title contenders. Kentucky worked through Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin; UConn beat Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State and Florida.
There were fair reasons why each team was seeded where it was at the tourney's outset. Kentucky lost 10 games and often looked lukewarm on the whole idea of college basketball in doing so. Louisville drilled UConn 81-48 in the final game of the regular season. Only now, with the benefit of hindsight, do those seeds look silly.
Either way, here we are: No. 7 UConn versus No. 8 Kentucky at 8:10 p.m. CT at AT&T Stadium on Monday night. It's simultaneously the strangest and the most fathomable national title matchup in years. It sounds weird and right at the same time. And it should be a lot of fun.
What stories are there to tell about this game? How do the two teams match up on the court? Here's our first look at Monday's national title game.
Colorado and Texas, eat your heart out.
In mid-October, John Calipari flew to Birmingham, Ala., for SEC media day, and when he took the mini-podium, he couldn't have been more confident. He said "three-quarters" of the Wildcats' practices were scrimmages, the implication being that his talented team's best chance of improving was to play against itself. He wanted them to "fail fast." He talked about his "dream" of coaching a 40-0 season, even if he didn't quite predict it.
You couldn't blame him: The master of the freshman-laden roster who won the 2011-12 national title with a team led by Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was bringing in a recruiting class widely reckoned as the best since Michigan's Fab Five. Many called it the best of all time.
And then the SEC season happened: Two overtime losses to Arkansas. An awful effort at LSU. A loss at South Carolina. A 19-point thrashing in the season finale at Florida. The Wildcats made all the preseason hype seem laughable. They made the quasi-moral arguments about one-and-done players seem trenchant.
Look at them now. The youngest team in the country -- one starting five freshmen and bringing two more (Marcus Lee, Dominique Hawkins) and a sophomore (Alex Poythress) off the bench -- is the first team in history to win four straight games in the NCAA tournament by five points or fewer. The Wildcats beat Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin by a combined 11-point margin. They made all of the clutch plays. On Monday night, Calipari has a chance to validate his whole programmatic strategy. He has a chance to prove once and for all -- not only to his moralizing critics, but to those few skeptical Wildcats fans who lost the faith in February -- that his way works. Does it ever.
On Saturday night, just after the Huskies toppled No. 1-seeded Florida -- a team that had won 30 games since its first matchup with UConn in early December, by the way -- @UConnFanDotCom offered a handy primer of UConn-related pre-national title storylines:
National media outline for a UConn story: Left behind in realignment, APR ban, NCAA, Calhoun retires, Ollie seems nice. Press send.
That's a joke, we think, but it also pretty much sums things up. There really is a wealth of stories surrounding this unlikely UConn tourney run. In many ways, they can all be combined into one: anxiety about a cherished program's future, and relief at its continued success.
It's been a tough couple of years for UConn fans. Coming off the euphoria of the 2011 Kemba Walker-led national title, in 2012 the Huskies waved farewell to their beloved, legendary Jim Calhoun, the man who almost single-handedly took a minor Yankee Conference program and built it into a perennial Big East power. In 2012-13, Kevin Ollie's first season, UConn wasn't even eligible for the NCAA tournament. Ollie had to hold the whole thing together. Now the Huskies are back at the Final Four, led by the thrilling play of another brilliant scoring guard (Shabazz Napier) and getting the kind of timely contributions from secondary weapons (DeAndre Daniels, Niels Giffey) that Napier and Jeremy Lamb put forth in UConn's last title run.
Napier is at the center of it all. Indeed, he's the best story of UConn's run. Three years ago, Napier the sophomore openly lamented to the media that his teammates wouldn't listen to him, that they didn't respect him as a leader, that they openly ignored him in the middle of games. Now he is as respected and tenured as college basketball players get. And after it all, he is one game away from winning his second national title in four years -- one win away from bringing the Huskies full circle.
On The Floor
Offensive rebounding. If there is one thing to watch in Monday night's game, it's offensive rebounding.
More precisely: Kentucky's offensive rebounding. How do the Huskies keep UK off the glass? Can they? And if they don't, can they still win the game?
These are the crucial questions Ollie's staff must consider as it prepares for Monday night. Kentucky rebounded more of its misses than any team in the country this season. This has always been the case, even when the Wildcats were struggling through the SEC. They might have done everything else poorly. Heck, they often did. But because Julius Randle and the rest of the Wildcats created so many second chances -- many of them quick putbacks around the rim -- they always had a pretty high performance floor.
Now, of course, Kentucky is doing pretty much everything well on the offensive end. They're keeping things simple, they're creating good looks, they're penetrating and drawing fouls, they're moving the ball -- and they're borderline unstoppable because of it. But they're also still grabbing a ton of offensive rebounds and still gobbling up putbacks and tip-ins at an obscene rate.
Connecticut will walk into the gym Monday night allowing its opponents to grab 32.9 percent of their own misses -- 247th in the country. It's the only of the four factors for which UConn's top-10 defense isn't among the nation's best teams. It's ... disconcerting. That's probably putting it politely. Kentucky has manhandled two of the best defensive rebounding teams in the country (Wichita State, Wisconsin) en route to the final. Can UConn possibly hold the line?
If they can't, can they win the game? Can Napier do enough on the offensive end? Can Ryan Boatright break Kentucky's guards down off penetration enough to score at a comparable clip? Can the Huskies collapse the defense and create open shots? Can DeAndre Daniels bring his best breakout stuff against one of the tallest and most athletic teams in the country? And even if all of these things happen -- even if you go down the line and tease out every possible matchup and statistical factor at play in this game -- is there a good chance Kentucky will just overwhelm the Huskies on the boards and win the game anyway?
Offensive rebounding. Write it down. It is your official One Big Thing for Monday night: A seemingly minor slice of the game set to exert outsize influence on its outcome.
It will, more than any other, determine who ends this bonkers tournament -- and who emerges at last from this strangely surprising, and yet somehow totally expected, tournament.
This is the 2014 Final Four. One shining paradox.
Final Four Happenings
Deciding factor: As is often the case with Kentucky, the Wildcats won the game on the glass. They outrebounded Wisconsin 32-27, which included 11 offensive rebounds compared to the Badgers' six.
Player of the game: Kentucky's James Young. The freshman finished with 17 points on 5-for-11 shooting from the field and 6-for-7 shooting at the free throw line. He also pulled down five rebounds.
Key stat: Aaron Harrison is now 3-for-3 on game-tying/go-ahead 3-point shots in the final minute of the second half of this year's NCAA tournament.
Deciding factor: UConn's defense. After falling behind 16-4, the Huskies buckled down and made nearly every shot the Gators took a difficult one. Florida shot just 38.8 percent from the floor and made just 1 of 10 3-point attempts.
Player of the game: UConn's DeAndre Daniels. The junior big man led the Huskies with 20 points and pulled down 10 of their 28 rebounds. He's the first player to record 20 points and 10 rebounds in a national semifinal game since Carmelo Anthony did the same for Syracuse in 2003.
Key stat: Florida's three assists are the fewest recorded by any team in a Final Four game since assists became an official statistic in the 1983-84 season.
The Latest Dish
Kentucky got two 3-pointers on Saturday night at AT&T Stadium. Two. That's it. The first bucket of the game and, yes, the last bucket of the game.
James Young started it all with a 3-pointer, giving Kentucky the early lead. But it was Aaron Harrison, one more time, who was clutch with the game winner to send home Wisconsin and put the Wildcats in the title game
How Kentucky Advanced
ARLINGTON, Texas - He didn't want the ball. He needed it.
Aaron Harrison clapped to get his twin Andrew Harrison's attention as the latter drove through a bunch of Badgers and sought refuge in the final seconds. Andrew could see the smirk on his twin's face. It was a good sign.
Josh Gasser pursued. Aaron hesitated.
"I didn't know how much time was on the clock," said Aaron, who nailed the game-winning 3-pointer with 6 seconds to play in Kentucky's 74-73 win over Wisconsin in Saturday's national semifinal at AT&T Stadium. "I just wanted to get a little look at it. So I just rose up and took the shot."
Kentucky coach John Calipari refused to call a timeout. But throughout this tourney, he's dared his young players to create plays that feature Harrison -- his freshman sharpshooter. This is the same young man who defe Michigan's dreams with a 3-pointer in the final seconds of an Elite Eight victory, somewhere on the arc with the ball in his hands. So his brother gave it to him.
"I just knew he was, like, smiling when he was dribbling the ball," Andrew said. "He's crazy. I don't understand him."
It's nothing new for those who know Aaron. He's a 19-year-old without a conscience. Some players run from that pressure. Aaron chases it.
He had the same attitude in elementary school.
"Third of fourth grade, he hit one to win the national championship," said Aaron Harrison Sr., who attended Saturday's game. "That's just his personality. He believes he's going to make every shot he takes. That's just him. That's who he is."
But that's who they all are, really.
Calipari On Kentucky's Win
How UConn Advanced
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Saint Joseph's essentially ran out of players in overtime. Villanova was done in by another lousy shooting night.
Iowa State didn't have its offensive lynchpin, Georges Niang.
Michigan State was just off, maybe tired from a slugfest win against Virginia two nights before.
And Florida didn't really play as well as it normally does.
That is one way to view Connecticut's steps toward its improbable appearance in the national championship game.
Here's another way, a more accurate way: The Huskies are really good.
It is more than time to stop saying that Connecticut has won its past five games for reasons other than Connecticut.
UConn isn't in the national championship game accidentally.
The Huskies got there on merit.
They did not hit a wild buzzer-beater to upset Florida, the NCAA tournament's overall No. 1 seed. They all but demoralized the Gators in their 63-53 win, beating one of the best defensive teams in the country with even better defense.
And really, that's what they've done the entire way, mixing up the perfect tournament cocktail: talent combined with brimming confidence and sprinkled with the nastiest on-ball defense March has witnessed.
"We were supposed to lose every game in the postseason," Ryan Boatright said. "We were supposed to lose every single one. We took that to heart. Every time we step on the court, we know it's us against the world."