The 2014 national championship game may pit a No. 7 and No. 8 seed against each other, but make no mistake, this is far from a Cinderella tussle.
Kentucky and Connecticut have been among the most talented teams in the country all season, and despite regular-season inconsistencies, they have gelled at the right time. Though the veteran Huskies and the all-freshman starting lineup of the Wildcats make for a nice contrast, the reality is that the matchup is too close to give either side a decisive edge.
So what factors should fans keep in mind when watching on Monday night? Examining the game through an offensive lens, here are a couple keys for each side.
Kentucky: Don't Settle for Jump Shots
UConn has reached the championship game not only because of the breathtaking offense of Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels, but also due to their defensive prowess. As USA Today's Dan Wolken illustrates, UConn was able to stifle Florida inside and let their guard pressure overwhelm the Gators on the perimeter:
With Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright just eating up opposing guards on the defensive end in this tournament, the question Kentucky will have to answer is whether guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison can do enough of what they need to do offensively to beat the Huskies.
UConn made Michigan State a jump-shooting team. UConn turned Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin into a non-factor. And if UConn makes Kentucky a jump-shooting team, they'll likely head home with the title.
It's not as though Kentucky has no shooters, and they should fare better than their SEC brethren if forced outside. Aaron Harrison's late-game three-point heroics are well documented, and James Young's shooting was key in the Wildcats' upset victories over Wichita State and Michigan.
However, it's clear that Kentucky's strength is inside with Julius Randle. Randle has compiled a double-double in every tournament game thus far, and few players in the the history of college basketball have been more prolific inside the paint:
Julius Randle has 24 double-doubles this season. Only freshman ever with more is Michael Beasley (28 in 2007-08).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 4, 2014
Even with Daniels' rise, Randle outweighs the Huskies' junior forward by over 50 pounds. Even with Willie Cauley-Stein unlikely to suit up, Kentucky's biggest edge is inside, as it has been for much of the season.
The size advantage is most pronounced with Randle, but even the 6'6" Harrison twins possess a massive advantage over the diminutive UConn backcourt of Napier and Boatright. If Kentucky can impose its size by creating chances in the paint and racking up the offensive rebounds, the Wildcats should earn their second national title in three years.
UConn: Get to the Line
So how can UConn combat Kentucky's clear size advantage? While it's true that either Napier or Boatright could catch fire from beyond the arc and shoot their way to the title, that is a wholly unreliable strategy that could derail UConn's hopes by halftime.
Rather, a more tenable strategy might actually involve attacking the Wildcats in spite of the size difference. Napier and Boatright have largely been undeterred by towers in the paint, and the two have combined to shoot an astounding 49-for-55 from the line thus far in the tournament.
Those two have embodied a Huskies squad that has been virtually automatic at the line. For a team that has played numerous tight games (and figures to do so again on Monday night), that could be the difference:
Good time to point out UConn is shooting 86.7 percent at the free-throw line in the tournament: 91 of 105 so far.— Andy Katz (@ESPNAndyKatz) April 6, 2014
It's worth noting that Kentucky's frontcourt has done a solid job of staying out of foul trouble. Randle has yet to pick up more than two personal fouls in a game this tournament, and new starting center Dakari Johnson has had exactly three fouls in his two starts.
Of course, Wisconsin and Michigan have not had the same slashing guards as the Huskies. The size difference may not actually be a disadvantage, CBSSports.com's Jon Rothstein notes that Kevin Ollie's decision to go small against Florida catalyzed the victory:
Trailing Florida 16-4 in the first half on Saturday, Ollie made the decision to go to a smaller lineup with three guards and DeAndre Daniels at center in a move completely changed the entire complexion of the game. After that adjustment, the Huskies had better spacing on offense and the Gators simply couldn't push the UConn offense off-balance.
The Gators do not have as much raw size as Kentucky does—the Wildcats also have Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress as bench frontcourt contributors—but such a strategy may allow UConn to play a more uptempo game that grants them transition opportunities.