NCAA Championship Game 2014: Kentucky's Blueprint to Beat UConn
Kentucky’s surreal trip from preseason favorite to No. 8 seed and back to title contender culminates in Monday’s 2014 NCAA championship game against the similarly overlooked UConn Huskies. In the battle of the lowest-seeded title-game contestants in history, Kentucky will need to prove that Shabazz Napier hasn’t quite brought back the unbeatable Kemba Walker magic from the 2011 champs.
One big step toward stopping Napier’s run will be for Kentucky to dominate the rebounding battle. The Wildcats are the fifth-best rebounding team in the nation thanks Julius Randle and the front line, but against the three-point-bombing Huskies, Kentucky’s guards will play just as big a role in cleaning up missed shots.
Herein, we'll touch more on the challenges facing the ‘Cats on the glass, along with four more essential elements to a win for Big Blue in its bid for a ninth national championship.
Hold on to the Ball
Turnovers have been a recurring bogeyman for Kentucky, while UConn has been tightening the defensive screws in tournament play.
Kentucky will need to learn from Florida’s mistakes on Saturday night, when the Gators saw their offense collapse because Ryan Boatright cut off dribble penetration by Scottie Wilbekin.
"My main thing is making the offensive player uncomfortable," Boatright told reporters on Sunday, and he certainly succeeded against Wilbekin. Whichever Harrison draws the Huskies junior will need to focus on jump shooting (or post up the 6’0” gadfly) rather than driving.
Simultaneously, all the Wildcats will need to concentrate on making crisp passes that don’t turn into easy layups for the Huskies on the other end.
Take Command on the Glass
Despite Florida’s considerable muscle and experience down low, UConn outrebounded the Gators, 28-27, in rolling to a win in the national semis. Kentucky can’t afford to make the same mistake, and that means all five Wildcats need to focus on owning the boards.
Or, as ESPN.com's Eamon Brennan puts it, "If there is one thing to watch in Monday night's game, it's offensive rebounding."
UConn’s guards are exceptional rebounders, even more so than the Wisconsin backcourt Kentucky just defeated.
The bigger ‘Cats will get their chances on the offensive glass, but the game may well turn on whether James Young and the Harrisons can outperform Shabazz Napier and his perimeter cohorts at chasing down missed three-pointers.
During the regular season, Kentucky put opponents on the foul line just 548 times, the 12th-best figure in the country.
Much of that was accomplished with the help of Willie Cauley-Stein protecting the rim. With the big man sidelined for the title game, the Wildcats must avoid fouling UConn, especially early in each half.
The Huskies have the fifth-best foul-shooting team in the entire country, and they’ve proven it with a magnificent postseason showing. If they’re able to get in the bonus for any significant period of time, they’ll pile up too many easy points for the Wildcats to match.
Stay Aggressive on Offense
In beating Wisconsin, Kentucky shot 50 percent from the floor and attempted just five three-pointers all night. It’s vital that the Wildcats adopt a similar approach against UConn, in spite of the Huskies’ proven aptitude for cutting off dribble penetration.
UConn’s defenders at the rim are vulnerable enough that low-scoring Patric Young poured in 19 (admittedly futile) points for Florida in the Huskies’ semifinal win.
If Young could turn in a performance like that, Dakari Johnson and Julius Randle should be thinking about doubling their 26 combined points from the win over the Badgers.
Shut Down the Three-Point Line
As a team, UConn has shot a dazzling .389 from beyond the arc this season. On the other hand, in their eight losses, the Huskies have been held to .270 from deep.
Clearly, controlling UConn’s long-range shooters is not an impossible task, and it’s the single most important factor in Kentucky’s title hopes on Monday night.
The ‘Cats have the height on the perimeter to make life especially difficult for undersized Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, but they must be willing to risk giving up a few extra two-pointers in order to win the larger battle at the arc.