With Monday's 2014 NCAA tournament championship game looming between Connecticut and Kentucky, it's worth determining some of the X-factors that could impact the title clash's outcome at Arlington's AT&T Stadium.
The No. 7 Huskies emerged from the East Region, and the preseason top-ranked Wildcats are seeking to confirm their prior elite status by capping off an amazing March Madness run with a win. This is yet another opportunity for UConn to play spoiler to a favorite, and it should feel especially slighted this time around for being counted out against a lower seed.
Huskies star Shabazz Napier isn't intimidated by the freshman phenoms from Lexington, per March Madness' official Twitter account:
Shabazz Napier sees no difference between UConn and Kentucky. pic.twitter.com/hyigFbFug7— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) April 6, 2014
Even the most optimistic of projections for each of these teams could nary have predicted this showdown. It goes to show how much—or how little—seeding matters. If Kentucky wasn't given an eighth seed in the tough Midwest Region, perhaps it wouldn't have stepped up as much as it has to get to this point.
Here is a look at the X-factors that should help decide who will be crowned champion in the Lone Star State.
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The Clutch Play of Aaron Harrison and Shabazz Napier
Both of these guards are going to have the ball in their hands the most on offense, and should this come down to the final few possessions, it's hard to imagine a better one-on-one scenario on both ends of the floor.
Harrison has the significant size advantage at 6'6", but what Napier lacks in measurables he makes up for with those aforementioned intangibles.
Unlike his Wildcats counterpart, the senior Napier has shown signs that he could step up in crunch time throughout his career. Perhaps the most notable instance came the first time the Huskies beat Florida back in December, when he drained a buzzer-beater:
Then of course, Harrison, who didn't have any such opportunities in what may be his only regular season as a college athlete, has launched himself into legendary status with his late-game heroics.
In addition to draining monster shots versus Wichita State and Louisville—two of last year's Final Four teams—Harrison kept his uncanny knack for drilling daggers into opponents on Saturday against Wisconsin:
ESPN Stats & Info highlights the incredible damage Harrison has inflicted in the Big Dance:
Aaron Harrison is 3-for-3 on game-tying/go-ahead 3-pt FG in final 1:00 of 2nd half in NCAA Tournament. He had 0 such attempts in reg season.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 6, 2014
Both of these floor generals have exhibited outstanding leadership skills—an intangible that is ever-important, just like guard play, in the NCAA tourney.
Look for Harrison and Napier to have the ball in their hands with the game on the line late in what should be a most intriguing battle.
James Young vs. Niels Giffey
The swingmen may very well swing the outcome of the national championship.
Young has knocked down some big shots and been an underrated contributor during the Wildcats' run, while Giffey came up big with 11 points in the Huskies' win over Florida.
It would appear that Young has the significant advantage here, yet Giffey is the more seasoned collegiate player. Expectations will be higher than ever for Young to produce, but it does help that he has such a slew of talented teammates to work with.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari felt good about Young even before he scored 17 points and grabbed five rebounds in Saturday's victory over the Badgers, per Kyle Tucker of the Courier-Journal:
Cal: "James Young had an unbelievable practice, was lively and bouncing, and I knew he would have the kind of game he had."— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_CJ) April 6, 2014
Like Young, Giffey can stretch out to the three-point arc with ease and help with spacing on offense.
That's pivotal in clearing out space for Napier to get penetration and to allow DeAndre Daniels to go to work down low as he did versus Florida, where he scored a game-high 20 points in the national semifinal triumph.
Experience is a common theme here. Young is a freshman who has elevated his play at the most important time, as many of his fellow blue-chip Kentucky prodigies have. Giffey is a senior who won an NCAA title at the same stage of his career but didn't realize the gravity of it.
Now Giffey appreciates the journey more than ever in his final collegiate campaign:
The young man who plays better between these two—most peoples' figurative money will be on Young—should give his side a massive advantage.
The Clash of Coaching Styles
While Kevin Ollie has had to face the pressure of following Jim Calhoun and groom his seasoned players into championship-caliber contenders, Calipari has embraced his squad's short shelf life.
Ollie's steady approach focused on defense is a fascinating juxtaposition to the "succeed and proceed" approach Calipari deploys. Both have been just as effective this season up until now.
There isn't a lot of flash to Ollie—just results. With Calipari, it's a case of bringing on the isolation situations and playing fast. Chances are, he has the personnel to outgun just about any adversary.
Which is the most enticing NCAA title matchup?
Knocking off the Wildcats would establish Ollie as one of the nation's premier coaches in just his second season at the helm in Storrs, while Calipari has a shot at putting a second NCAA title banner in Rupp Arena in three years.
The "one-and-done" college rule may be changing, which is something Calipari embraces.
“Can you imagine if I had this team for four years?” said Calipari, per Bleacher Report's Jason King. “Actually, forget four years. What if I had it for two? Can you imagine how good we’d be?”
It's all about immediacy for Calipari—an appropriate zeitgeist of a coach for the modern, microwaved and media-driven age. The old-school Ollie is doing things by the book, yet distinguishing himself in writing his own legacy as the face of the UConn program, per ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil:
I can't be Coach Calhoun. I can't build this program up like he did. I can't do that. But I can be Kevin Ollie. I can take some great life lessons I learned from Coach and build on them and forge my own program. And that's all I'm trying to do.
Amid these X-factors, what can't be measured is the will to win and other intangibles that have gotten these championship participants to the ultimate Final Four stage. A mix of those, combined with how matchups go with opponents along the way, determine the order in the madness of March.
Daniels' exceptional play in the post will be a source of buzz in matching up with Kentucky's deep frontcourt headlined by Julius Randle. But whatever lurks inside these players in terms of how badly they want the trophy will go a longer way in deciding this contest.
No matter what happens, both of these unlikely title-game participants have thrived amid many instances of adversity in March. They are as deserving of being here as any. Whatever they learned from those difficult situations is the X-factor, or secret stuff, that champions are ultimately made of.