NCAA Championship Game 2014: UConn's Blueprint to Beat Kentucky
When Kentucky and Connecticut face off for the national championship Monday night, we'll be treated to a game that only liars saw coming (OK, aside from the 1,780 ESPN Tournament Challenge players who have evidence to back up their claims).
One of these teams was expected to be here, but it took a wildly circuitous route to reach the national title game. Preseason No. 1 Kentucky has lived on the edge throughout the NCAA tournament, winning its five games by a total of 18 points.
The other was popularly characterized as a one-man team that didn't have enough weapons to contend on this level. While Shabazz Napier has been justly feted for his tremendous season—to say nothing of his loyalty to his school—Huskies sidekicks DeAndre Daniels and Ryan Boatright have been every bit as important to UConn's rapid reincarnation.
Napier and fellow seniors Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander are pushing for their second national titles after being complementary pieces to Kemba Walker's magic carpet ride in 2011. The gutsy Huskies have a heavy order to fill, however, in facing down the larger and more hyped Wildcats.
If UConn intends to ensure Kentucky's luck runs out here, there are a set of difficult tasks it needs to accomplish. Let's examine those missions point by point, knowing that even if the Huskies can reach these goals, these two teams will still likely be fighting down to the last possession.
Like cats and dogs, if you'll pardon the pun.
All KenPom.com links should be assumed to require subscription.
Relentless Pressure on Both Harrisons
Wisconsin lost to Kentucky by one point. It forced only four turnovers against an offense led by a point guard who commits 2.2 per game himself. These developments are not unrelated.
UConn defeated Florida by 10. It held the nation's No. 1 team under 40 percent shooting for only the sixth time all season, forcing 11 turnovers and only allowing the entire UF team to dish three assists all night. These pieces of information also go hand in hand.
Now, the Huskies backcourt of 6'1" Shabazz Napier and the generously listed 6'0" Ryan Boatright go face to collarbone with the 6'6" Harrison twins. And Boatright, for one, is salivating at the opportunity.
"I ain't going to reveal all my secrets, but I'm going to just try to do my best to turn them up and down the floor, to try to make them uncomfortable," Boatright told the media at Sunday's press conference. "Just try to get up in them and be a little physical with them. ... They're big so their dribble is a little high."
UConn's own top freshman, 6'4" Terrence Samuel, may see extended minutes in a three-guard set intended to further harass the twins.
Boatright had four steals against Michigan State. Napier ripped four against the Gators. Those games were against smaller guards with much more postseason experience. Similar performances against the Harrisons will be essential if the Huskies intend to build any sort of cushion to guard against another furious Kentucky comeback.
Work for Good Three-Point Looks
Wisconsin was unable to get star big man Frank Kaminsky loose on the perimeter against Kentucky, but the Badgers still stayed healthy from the outside. UW sank eight of 20 three-point tries, including three from top gunner Ben Brust.
On the season, UConn is a 38.9 percent three-point shooting team, one of the nation's 25 best. If UK allows 40 percent shooting against Napier, Boatright, Giffey, et al., its run through the March jungle will be in serious jeopardy.
Giffey in particular must recapture his sizzling early-season form after a desultory tournament so far. He's made only three of his 19 three-point attempts in UConn's five games. If Napier and Boatright can elude the Harrisons and get into the lane, Giffey's slump may put him far enough under the radar that UK will help off him early. A couple of open looks may be all the German sniper needs to find his range.
The Huskies have to work the offense as long as needed to find those open chances, since they can't rely on making contested attempts against an opponent with such a size advantage.
Look for Napier to sternly test the Wildcats on pick-and-roll opportunities. From the Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy:
Napier produces .964 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, according to Synergy Sports Technologies, a figure that puts him in the 84th percentile among collegians. In the same category, Kentucky as a team ranks in the 44th percentile.
This is where a veteran point guard eagerly looks forward to facing a freshman-laden defense.
Protect the Defensive Glass
If there's a major weakness to the UConn defense, it's rebounding. Over the course of the whole season, the Huskies have surrendered 32.9 percent of available offensive rebounds to their opponents. That percentage ranks 247th in the nation, according to Ken Pomeroy.
During the tournament, that rate has dropped to 28.9 percent, according to StatSheet.com, but there are still disturbing signs at hand. Iowa State ripped 17 offensive caroms in the Sweet 16, and the Cyclones are a much smaller team than the towering Wildcats.
UK's 42.3 percent offensive rebounding percentage ranks second in the nation, per Pomeroy. The Cats have finished each of their tournament games with at least 10 offensive rebounds, pulling 43.1 percent of available chances, according to StatSheet.com.
Kentucky scored 23 second-chance points against Wisconsin, and the Badgers are among one of the nation's top 15 defensive rebounding clubs. The Huskies big men must keep Dakari Johnson and Julius Randle from feasting on leftovers to hoist UConn's fourth national title.
Attack the Rim and Play for Contact
UConn has been otherworldly at the foul line in this NCAA tournament. The Huskies have made 77.4 percent of their foul shots over the course of the whole season, but they've hit a ludicrous 86.7 percent during March Madness.
The tournament record is 87 percent, held by the 1969 St. John's Redmen (now known as the Red Storm), according to Paul Doyle of The Hartford Courant.
Even without rim-protector Willie Cauley-Stein, who will miss the national title game due to an ankle injury, the bigger Wildcats will contest shots in the lane, looking for the block. UConn could thrive by attacking that pressure and setting up shop at the line.
Without Cauley-Stein available, fellow bigs Johnson, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress are seeing larger roles. This is their ultimate chance to make big plays on a big stage, and the Huskies could catch them getting overzealous.
Don't discount the potential for the perimeter players to wind up in foul trouble, either. Remember, Andrew Harrison nearly went home an all-time Kentucky goat for bailing out Wisconsin's Traevon Jackson with a foul on a three-point try with the shot clock winding down.
Let DeAndre Daniels Challenge Julius Randle
Sure, Kentucky stud Julius Randle is an All-American who's averaging 15.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game in the NCAA tournament. But don't discount UConn forward DeAndre Daniels so quickly.
Daniels doesn't have Randle's elite reputation or his linebacker build, but the Huskies junior's March production takes a backseat to no one's. Daniels has put up 17.6 points and 7.4 rebounds of his own, shooting 53.2 percent from the floor and 41.7 percent from beyond the arc. He posted 20-10 games against both Iowa State and Florida.
If UConn coach Kevin Ollie does decide to spend a good portion of the game rolling with three guards, Daniels will have either Randle or Dakari Johnson trying to chase him around the perimeter. Making the UK bigs work on both ends can lead to fatigue and/or foul trouble, either of which will prove immensely helpful in staving off any late-game heroics.
Daniels enters this game as a leading candidate for Final Four Most Outstanding Player, and his coach expects another strong game if he's prepared to work for it.
"When he's active, he scores," Ollie said of Daniels at the Huskies' press conference. He went on:
If you look back through all the stats and our season, if he averaged eight rebounds, he averaged 19 points. So that tells you when he's active and he's paying attention to details and he's going after the ball—we call it collective ball hunters—when he's a ball hunter, he scores, because he's that talented.
Daniels' tournament play has raised the possibility that he could depart early for the NBA, but he'll need one more hot game to truly put himself on the 2014 radar. And who better to produce such a game against than a potential No. 1 pick in Randle?