We’ve never had a #7 vs #8 final before in the NCAA Tournament, but no one will say UConn and Kentucky don’t deserve it, beating quite a few national title contenders along the way, defying the odds and early predictions by making it to the championship game.
It’s been some great defense against the excellent guards from Michigan State and Florida that put Connecticut in the championship game a year after not even playing in the tournament, and in a season with multiple losses in conference to both Louisville and SMU. Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels have been great, but defense has been the key to their success in a wild couple of weeks.
And if defending guards is their specialty, they’ll have their hands full with the Harrison twins Kentucky put on the floor, and especially with Aaron Harrison, who has hit three huge 3-pointers in the Sweet Sixteen (against Louisville), Elite Eight (Michigan) and Final Four (Wisconsin), the last two being game winners as well.
Shabazz Napier leads UConn in almost every statistical category. He is scoring 21 points per game in the tournament, adding 4.8 assists and 2.4 steals per game. Ryan Boatright does help him offensively, but his specialty is slowing down top scorers on the opposing teams, like he did quite well with Keith Appling and Scottie Wilbekin. UConn like to press with three guards pushing high up the floor which generates plenty of steals and transition opportunities, but it obviously hurts them inside. So far they’ve been able to do a good enough job to keep that weakness from showing.
Kentucky have excellent guards, but their best player and most consistent performer has been Julius Randle, leading the team with 15.8 points and 10.6 rebounds in the tournament. He’s getting help from Dakari Johnson and surprisingly from Alex Poythress coming off the bench, while the Harrison twins and James Young have been doing a great job of crashing the boards and making some very big shots on the outside. Collecticely they’re not that special as a defensive unit, but they’re athletic enough to make up for that most of the time.
This might not be a game between the two actual best teams in the nation, but that’s besides the point. The NCAA Tournament is about getting hot at the right time, not leaning on what you’ve done in the regular season. These two schools have won six of the last 18 national titles, which means this isn’t exactly coming out of nowhere, or should be at least. It remains to be seen if this will be a redeeming moment for John Calipari after a very rough season, or a triumphant one for Kevin Ollie, pretty much announcing UConn are back on the main stage of College Basketball.