Parity is typically an overused term in sports, but this year's NCAA tournament and national championship contestants embody that term. Fittingly, a season without a truly dominating top tier has produced a No. 7 vs. No. 8 seed final, albeit among two schools with a rich basketball history.
Kentucky and Connecticut are not exactly the scrappy underdogs their seeds would suggest, as with everything clicking for both squads throughout the tournament, there is little doubt that the title game pits two of the most talented teams from the field. For now, it appears the Wildcats have come out as a slight favorite, per Odds Shark:
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So what should fans expect from Monday's title tilt? Below are a couple keys for each team to cut down the nets.
UConn: Harass the Harrisons
Thus far, the inconsistent Harrison twins have brought their A-games for Kentucky in the tournament. Andrew was terrific in earlier upsets of Wichita State and Louisville, while Aaron has hit consecutive last-second three-pointers to seal victories.
However, neither have faced a challenge as difficult as Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, the lifeblood of the Huskies on both sides of the floor. While most fans are aware of their offensive prowess, the backcourt has powered a vastly improved UConn defense:
UConn has been winning the past week with its defense. Phenomenal against Michigan State. Strong again tonight.— Andy Katz (@ESPNAndyKatz) April 5, 2014
UConn's defense has been the difference this season. It was mediocre early in the year, has been tremendous ever since.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) April 6, 2014
Indeed, for all their strengths, it appears the Harrisons could have trouble against the opportunistic Huskies guards. Andrew Harrison has had at least four turnovers in three of the five tournament games, and against Wichita's excellent backcourt of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, the twins combined for nine turnovers.
Napier and Boatright have shut down impressive guards throughout the tournament, with Florida's Scottie Wilbekin the most recent star to turn into a non-factor. As Gators coach Billy Donovan told USA Today's Dan Wolken, that defense has been the catalyst for UConn's most recent upsets:
They have turned into a great defensive team. I think that was probably missing for a good portion of their season. They have really been able to defend at a high level.
I think it all starts with Boatright. He does a great job really pressuring the ball. And like Scottie said, even when you go by him, they turned us, they flip balls, they slapped balls out of our hands, they got on the break, they got us to take tough shots. There's not many guards we have played against that have kept Scottie Wilbekin out of the lane. These guys kept him out of the lane.
Though there is no magic formula for tournament success, steady veteran backcourts have been a common denominator among many champions. Napier and Boatright will present a stiff test for the young Kentucky guards. Given their steadiness throughout the tournament, those two figure to represent UConn's biggest advantage Monday night.
And yet, despite the national attention they have generated, neither Napier nor Boatright were the most critical player in the Huskies' win over Florida.
Kentucky: Win Randle vs. Daniels
DeAndre Daniels was an important regular-season contributor, but he has elevated his game even further under the bright tournament spotlight. Against Florida, Daniels accomplished something no other player had done in the Final Four in over a decade:
DeAndre Daniels is the first player with 20 points and 10 rebounds in a national semifinal win since Carmelo Anthony for Syracuse in 2003.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 6, 2014
Indeed, against big frontcourt bodies like Adreian Payne and Patric Young, it was Daniels that added another dimension to UConn beyond their excellent backcourt. Going up against Julius Randle, however, entails an entirely different animal:
Julius Randle has 24 double-doubles this season, most in the nation, including a double-double in all 4 games in the Tournament— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 5, 2014
If UConn's biggest advantage is their guards, then Randle almost certainly must have an excellent game to ensure that Kentucky can control the paint. In terms of pure size, Randle's biggest test thus far was against Louisville's Montrezl Harrell. Randle aced that challenge, forcing Harrell into foul trouble and putting up a 15-point, 12-rebound performance.
Daniels is not nearly as physically imposing as Harrell (or Michigan's Jordan Morgan, for that matter), and Randle will have a roughly 50-pound advantage. However, as SI.com's Brian Hamilton illustrates, the forward battle is closer than that size mismatch would indicate:
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.
Who will win the national championship?
With Willie Cauley-Stein's injury, Randle's excellence has sustained Kentucky's frontcourt advantage throughout the tournament's latter stages. The Wildcats have also received timely shooting from the Harrison twins and James Young, but make no mistake, Randle is the foundation of their run.
Randle may be the only surefire NBA lottery pick between either team, but both teams have boasted solid balance and depth throughout their tournament runs. In a season where consistency has eluded most of the top-tier teams, it seems fitting that these enigmatic regular-season squads have gelled in time to find themselves competing for the national championship.