Four storylines for title game showdown between Connecticut and Kentucky
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Kentucky and Connecticut, the surprising entrants in Monday's national championship game, have fooled everyone throughout this NCAA tournament. The eighth-seeded Wildcats and seventh-seeded Huskies have survived, however, and they combine for the highest-seeded title game in tournament history. In fact, neither team even made the Big Dance last year, making this the first time the NCAA final has involved two teams that weren't even in the event the previous season since 1966, when Texas Western beat Kentucky in a historic championship game. Here are four thoughts on how this most unlikely title pairing shapes up.
1. The backcourt battle will be fascinating.
Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier hung another pelt on the wall Saturday, absolutely atomizing Scottie Wilbekin and Florida's guards with their perimeter defense. Connecticut allowed a Gators team that ranked among the nation's top 20 in offensive efficiency no rhythm -- they recorded just three assists -- just as it had manhandled Michigan State's guards in last week's Elite Eight. Next up: Kentucky's magic-working Harrison twins, who combined for just two turnovers in 65 minutes on Saturday, not to mention Aaron Harrison's second straight game-winning three-point bomb. Whichever team gets the better performance from its backcourt will be in excellent position to hoist the championship trophy.
2. The frontcourt stars are more evenly matched than you think.
Connecticut's DeAndre Daniels doesn't have the hype -- and may not have the same NBA draft projection -- as Kentucky forward Julius Randle, but the 20-point, 10-rebound performance he dropped on Florida on Saturday was the latest evidence of his ability. Daniels, a 6-foot-9 junior forward, entered the Final Four averaging 17 points and 6.8 rebounds. On the other side, of course, is Randle, the 6-9 freshman force for the Wildcats who had 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting against Wisconsin and has averaged 15.8 points and 10.6 rebounds in the NCAAs. Randle is as good as gone to the NBA, and Daniels' performances have surely opened many eyes among pro scouts. Only one of them, though, will be able to call themselves a national champion.
3. Who will use the three-point line more effectively?
Florida's game plan revolved around ensuring Connecticut had few decent looks from long range, but some shoddy pick-and-roll defense allowed the Huskies to get good shots that got them back in the game after the Gators jumped out to a 16-4 lead. For the game, UConn made 5-of-12 from beyond the arc. In the second semifinal, Wisconsin went 8-for-20 from three-point range, with all the makes coming from players who should have been points of emphasis on the scouting report. The Wildcats must do a better job limiting open looks from the Huskies' best perimeter shooters than they did against the Badgers. As for its own output, Kentucky only made 2-of-5 from three on Saturday, but Connecticut can't ignore James Young and Aaron Harrison on the perimeter. It will especially want to recognize the latter as a threat from anywhere inside AT&T Stadium with the game on the line.
4. Will John Calipari or Kevin Ollie get the ultimate validation on Monday?
For a guy with a bad hip, Calipari was on quite the victory lap already on Saturday. "They have an unbelievable will to win, and part of that has come from how they have been treated all season," he said of his team. "They have been ridiculed, criticized."
So too has Calipari, but if he wins a second title in three years -- with, of course, a completely different cast of players -- it will be very difficult to argue against his way of shaping and managing a program. Ollie, meanwhile, can take one giant step out of the looming shadow of Hall of Fame predecessor Jim Calhoun, which literally and figuratively will not go away. In just his second year as a head coach, the 41-year-old Ollie won't be able to receive a career-long stamp of approval even with a title, but he can make the Connecticut program inextricably his own. THAMEL: Ollie's perfect plan brings end to Florida's dream season