ARLINGTON, Texas – In order to crawl inside the jerseys and minds of the guards he defends, Ryan Boatright finds it helpful to know what they're going to do before they do it. He devours the scouting reports compiled by Connecticut assistant coaches. Film study becomes a version of forensic science; Boatright deciphers tendencies about, for example, what a player prefers to do in late shot clock situations when the ball swings back his way for a clear-out. From that, the Huskies junior establishes his counters, to force the opponent from doing what he wants to do and into what Boatright wants him to do.
So as he watched the end to the national semifinal game between Wisconsin and Kentucky on Saturday, Boatright was as startled as anyone, only perhaps for different reasons. He knew what Wildcats guard Aaron Harrison did with the ball on the wing and time running down in the Elite Eight against Michigan. He saw Harrison in the same position against the Badgers. He didn't know what Harrison would do, hitting yet another three-pointer that was yet another game-winner. But he knew what Harrison might do, and he was baffled why Harrison was allowed to do it.
“He hit the same shot at the same time from the same spot,” Boatright said Sunday, amused disbelief in his voice. “Like, if you're up two, you gotta run him off the three-point line. You take the two points, you go to overtime. No matter what, you don't let him get a three-point shot off. In that situation, I would have known what to do. I wouldn't have let him get that three off. You just would have got up in him.”
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There is no cleaner explanation for why Connecticut will play for a national championship at AT&T Stadium on Monday. Its guards get up in people, like squirrels under sweaters, with Boatright and backcourt mate Shabazz Napier effectively decapitating offenses by abusing the point guard tasked with running them.
It happened to Michigan State's Keith Appling, who posted two points and four turnovers in an Elite Eight loss. It happened to Florida's Scottie Wilbekin, who made two shots and posted one assist against three turnovers in a Final Four showdown Saturday. And if the Huskies are to hoist a trophy on Monday, it must happen again to Kentucky's twin engines, the 6-foot-6 Harrison brothers, who have committed just 10 turnovers combined in the last three games while also performing enough heroics to have a state holiday established in their honor.
At the point of the attack will be the 6-foot, 168-pound Boatright, whose relatively slight frame belies a rapacious appetite for mayhem. “It's like Gary Payton,” Huskies reserve Tor Watts said. “He's really all up in you. He's not going to let you do anything, or he's going to try his hardest to stop you. What Boat has been doing in this tournament is stopping these elite point guards from getting off, and they're used to getting off on everyone. These are great players we're talking about. Maybe pros. And Boat is able to put his mind to it and stop these players.”
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Mind and body, really. At best, Boatright typically sees eye-to-eye with opposing guards. Often enough, it's eye-to-shoulder or eye-to-torso. But his diminutive frame allows him almost to attack from underneath, staying low to the floor and, ultimately, just closer to the ball that the opposition is trying to protect. Being quicker than most of his marks, he can beat them to the breathing room they're trying to create.
Terrence Samuel discovered this the hard way. During Connecticut's first few practices of 2013-14, the 6-foot-4 freshman guard didn't expect Boatright to treat defensive drills as invasive procedures. As a result, Samuel simply couldn't get around Boatright until he altered his dribbling posture to keep his guard hand up at all times. “Definitely if you don't know him, and he's playing you full court, you better be ready to protect the ball,” Samuel said. “Because he's coming for it.”
Mostly Boatright, who is also Connecticut's third-leading scorer at 12.1 points per game this season, aims for disruption. He wants to make guards uncomfortable. He wants to turn them constantly, redirecting their desired path. He wants guards to go side-to-side instead of north-south to the rim. It's like laying siege more than unleashing a fusillade all at once, eroding the opposition rather than obliterating it in an instant.
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“You don't want him to come up and have his rhythm and have his flow,” Boatright said. “A lot of the point guards we've been playing are scoring point guards, so any time you can get up in them and cut down their scoring, they're going to get naturally irritated. Making them uncomfortable, they get erratic and they get frustrated and they start making mistakes.”
Boatright credited those detailed scouting reports from the Connecticut staff and specifically noted how coach Kevin Ollie urged him to begin examining film during his sophomore year – all of which enhanced his ability to execute defensively. But a certain hardness was required, too, and the Huskies staff needed only prod Boatright a little to hone that.
He grew up in Aurora, Ill., a city 40 miles west of Chicago, a “rough environment” with enough gang activity that Boatright knew it to be a problem to avoid. Boatright's cousin, Arin Williams, whom he considered as close as a brother, was shot to death at an Aurora restaurant in January. It was no easy place, made even less so by being the little kid on the block.
“Growing up in it, being a small guy and being out there, you're naturally just tough,” Boatright said. “You can't be a punk. My Mom, she raised me to be a tough dude but to be smart at the same time, which is why I'm here in college or not in jail or dead.”
The same survival instincts aren't necessarily required to deter college point guards from their appointed rounds, but the serrated edge helps. It was later Saturday that more film study stoked Boatright's indignation. He watched television and watched analysts attribute Wilbekin's performance to cramps in his knees and not the voracious defense played by Connecticut's guards.
It was an affront to general pain Boatright believed himself to be. “Maybe his knees were hurting,” he said. “But at the same time, they're still not giving us the credit we deserve. We like that, though.”
Now comes the biggest test, in every sense, with the outsize Harrisons and their fearless NCAA tournament performance offering a fascinating foil. All the questions get raised again, just one more time, about whether Connecticut can stand up to a gale force. First it was reborn Michigan State. Then it was Florida's 30-game win streak. Kentucky is next, and the first thing it will see is Boatright, right in the way of where it wants to go.
“Me and Bazz, if you've been watching us the past three years, you know we have a lot of heart and we ain't going to back down from nobody,” Boatright said. “Senior, freshman, All-American, whoever you are. You gotta lace your shoes up, you gotta put your jersey exactly how we do. We all bleed the same.”