Posted 04/07/2014 at 12:21 PM
The NCAA Tournament never seizes to amaze with another great tournament filled with great down-to-wire games and surprises. This year’s championship game is filled with two programs familiar with national success but no one expected Kentucky and Connecticut to match up tonight in a historic final by the seeding.
Connecticut Huskies: Connecticut looked like they would be one-and-done most of the way against St. Joseph’s before forcing overtime and actually covering in the opener. The Huskies faced a tough path with wins over title contenders going against Villanova, Iowa State, and Michigan State but they have had some good fortune as well. Georges Niang did not play for Iowa State and Villanova was perhaps seeded too high with the Big East looking rather weak at this point. The win over Michigan State came as a big surprise for many but the Spartans had been an inconsistent team all season and the hot shooting the Spartans enjoyed early in the postseason was not going to continue. It was also a much worse Michigan State defense than anyone seems to realize.
While Connecticut has scored 74 points per game in the tournament this is a team led by its defense. The Huskies were a top 10 team in 2-point shot percentage on defense and Connecticut is not only one of the best free throw shooting teams in the nation; they are a team that often has a free throw attempt edge as they manage fouls well defensively. The Huskies actually missed three free throws on Saturday but the Huskies shot nearly 56 percent with a highly efficient offense in the upset over Florida. Shabazz Napier is also a player that can take over games like no other perimeter player left in the field and he was just as vital on defense in the national semifinal, picking up four steals.
Connecticut shot over 93 percent from the line during the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games to hold on in two close games. Those games came in very comfortable environment at Madison Square Garden as the Huskies enjoyed a great venue edge to reach the Final Four despite being a #7 seed. Connecticut’s offense had plenty of rough games against some of the best defensive teams it has faced in AAC play like Louisville and Cincinnati but the Huskies have fared well in slower paced defensive games in the last two games with wins over Michigan State and Florida, holding those two powerhouse programs to just 107 points combined.
Connecticut does not have the size that Kentucky has, especially on the perimeter but the Huskies are still a tall and deep team that can force the Wildcats into being more of a jump shooting team than Wisconsin did as Connecticut should compete better on rebounds and allow fewer second chance points. Outside shooting, turnovers, and free throw trips will likely decide the fate for the Huskies.
Kentucky Wildcats: The Wildcats were the preseason #1 team as the season started, sitting with just 5/1 odds to win the NCAA title (compared with 33/1 for Connecticut). By the seeding it is a huge surprise that Kentucky is in the Final Four but the path has not been as impressive as it sounds, beating three of last year’s final four teams. Wichita State was a deserving #1 seed but the Shockers had not played high quality competition or battled in many close games. Louisville was a vastly overrated team based on the 2013 championship as this year’s team had no high end wins and Kentucky had already defeated them earlier in the season. Michigan was the best team in the Big Ten all season but the Wolverines don’t play great defense and in a shooting match Kentucky was able to hit one more shot as part of an epic shooting day for the Wildcats. In the Final Four Kentucky was impressive in the paint but it was again a big outside shot that saved the day.
Kentucky’s success Monday will depend on whether or not they can continue shooting as well as they have been. The Wildcats are a 33 percent 3-point shooting team on the season but in the huge wins over Wichita State, Louisville, and Michigan they shot over 44 percent. That includes making 7 of 11 3-point shots against Michigan including the game winning shot that broke a tie in the final seconds. Against Wisconsin Kentucky continually forced the ball inside, getting a huge edge in the paint scoring as well as many second chance opportunities. Kentucky only made two 3-point shots in the semifinal but they only attempted five shots from beyond the arc. The reason Kentucky held off a Wisconsin team that looked like the more complete squad was that they did not turn the ball over, featuring just four turnovers in the game.
Despite the next level talent and obvious athleticism for the Wildcats this is not a team that creates turnovers and gets a great deal of transition baskets. Those fast break opportunities were rare against Wisconsin and will be unlikely against a superior Connecticut defense. The points-per-possession numbers for Kentucky have been off the charts so far in the tournament and the championship will determine if Kentucky can continue that incredible clip or if they will hit a wall against one of the best defenses they have faced all season outside of Florida, a team the Wildcats lost three times against.
The offensive rebounding edge for Kentucky has not been as pronounced as it seems as Kentucky has averaged just over a four rebound edge per game on the offensive glass in the NCAA Tournament. Officiating played a big role in the narrow win over Wisconsin as offensive charges were very rare, Kentucky frequently barreled into the lane out of control and were bailed out on several block calls that many crews likely would have called the other way. With a quicker Connecticut squad defending Kentucky could see some of those calls go the other way.
Kentucky has won five games by a total of 18 points including wins by one, two, and three points as this team of freshmen has delivered in big moments. Connecticut is a veteran team that has not had a game decided by fewer than five points in the tournament although the first game did go to overtime. It seems inevitable that the Wildcats will be in a down-to-the-wire game again in what should be a thrilling championship.