NCAA Bracket 2014: Game-Changers Who Will Decide UConn vs. Kentucky

Steven CookFeatured Columnist IVApril 6, 2014

Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier (13) and Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin (5) reach for a loose ball during the second half of the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball semifinal game Saturday, April 5, 2014, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Tony Gutierrez

The spectacle that is the NCAA tournament is nearing its end, but not before some of the biggest game-changers who have taken the stage will get one last chance to assume glory in Monday's national championship game.

Just because a No. 7 seed and a No. 8 seed are squaring off doesn't make it any less appealing of a matchup. Kentucky and Connecticut bring as much tradition and pedigree to the table as any two sets of programs, and each school boasts a number of elite playmakers who are ready to etch their names into NCAA lore.

Let's break down the most dangerous players in Monday's NCAA tournament final between the Huskies and Wildcats. 


Shabazz Napier

David J. Phillip

Why not start at the top?

UConn guard Shabazz Napier has been the singular story of this NCAA tournament. His star power has led the Huskies on this run to Dallas.

His individual numbers have been fantastic—he's averaging 21 points, 4.8 assists and 5.4 rebounds in his five NCAA tournament games played this postseason. Napier has been a nuisance on defense as well, amassing 2.4 steals per game in the tournament.

Going up against SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin and a star-studded Florida lineup, Napier scored 12 points while adding six assists and getting his teammates involved for a 63-53 win to advance to Monday's title game. But his biggest impact came on defense, where he was able to notch four steals. 

Playing alongside Ryan Boatright—another nimble, shifty guard who can make plays off the dribble and shoot it—makes Napier's game reach a whole new level. Now not only does UConn have one of the best guards in the nation, but it also has a top tandem in him and Boatright. 

Guards reign supreme in the NCAA tournament, and Napier has shown that with his presence this March and April.


Julius Randle

David J. Phillip

A number of clutch plays from Aaron Harrison might drown out everything else, but Julius Randle has had himself a dominant NCAA tournament in a (relatively) quiet fashion.

As quiet as a 6'9", 250-pound sure-fire lottery pick can be, I suppose.

Randle has notched a double-double in four of his five tourney games—the lone exception coming against Wisconsin on Saturday. Even with that, he's averaging 15.8 points and 10.6 rebounds on the big stage, eerily similar to his season averages. 

Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker had this to say about Randle, per ESPN's Jeff Goodman:

It's no secret that UConn's best players are in the backcourt, and it's also no secret that Kentucky likes to make opponents pay by using its size down low. These two things put together means that John Calipari should be teeing Randle off for one-on-one isolation moves left and right.

When Florida's Patric Young attacked the rim on offense against UConn, he was able to make plays and eventually lead the Gators in scoring with 19 points.

And Young is nowhere near the polished offensive player that Randle is, so Calipari should be milking this strength all he can until it doesn't work anymore. 


DeAndre Daniels

Chris Steppic

After a season in which he averaged 13 points per game and made it to the Final Four off a number of big performances, DeAndre Daniels still wasn't getting the attention he deserved.

He took that chip on his shoulder all the way to Dallas, where he displayed it for the world to see. In UConn's win over Florida in Saturday's semifinal, Daniels finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds—both game highs. 

Former UConn head coach Jim Calhoun gave Daniels some bulletin-board material before the game, which Daniels took heed of per ESPN's SportsCenter:

At 6'9" and 195 pounds, Daniels doesn't sound daunting on paper. But when his smooth jumper and sound floor game come running at you, he can rack up points in a heartbeat.

And don't nullify his impact on the boards, either. He found a way to get 10 rebounds against a massive Florida frontcourt and could do the same against Kentucky's bigs if he finds his areas correctly. 

If Daniels cleans up the boards, showcases his usual all-around game and keeps hitting big three-pointers, he will give UConn the scoring presence in the frontcourt that it needs to complement Napier and Boatright. 


Aaron Harrison

David J. Phillip

Well, it seems as if Kentucky has found its go-to guy—at the end of the game, at least. 

Freshman guard Aaron Harrison hit his third game-winning three-pointer in three games on Saturday, connecting on a pull-up three with 5.7 seconds left to give his Wildcats a 74-73 lead they wouldn't relinquish. 

It didn't matter that Harrison hadn't attempted a three all game to that point. He let his first one fly, and it ripped the nylon.

And it wasn't just a coincidence, either. As ESPN's Stuart Scott noted, Harrison has now hit three game-winners in the tournament:

Lacking a player with a killer mentality has been one of Kentucky's major downfalls this season. Randle has been the star, but he isn't typically a one-possession-for-the-win guy. That's especially so in the NCAA tournament, which tends to rely more on guards.

Kentucky has turned to Aaron Harrison with its season on the line numerous times in the past week or so, and him converting those chances has made him one of the most confident players left standing.

If UConn gives him any room outside of the arc, even if it's at NBA-range, it could be deadly.