It's a battle of non-Cinderellas Monday night despite seeds, as No. 8 Kentucky and No. 7 Connecticut clash in a fateful matchup to crown a champion of the madness.
Both teams underwhelmed during the regular season, but as the great teams always do, they rallied when it mattered most. Believe it or not, Kentucky and UConn are quite familiar with each other on the grand stage of the tournament, as SportsCenter illustrates:
Crazy stat of the day: Kentucky has won 11 straight games in the NCAA Tournament. Its last loss came to UConn in 2011 Final Four.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 7, 2014
On Monday, a few key points should be monitored. How they play out will dictate which historic program wins the title.
When: Monday, April 7, at 9:10 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Stadium, Dallas
Live Stream: March Madness Live
Odds: Kentucky (-2.5), courtesy of Vegas Insider
Can the Harrison Twins Win on the Outside?
Kentucky's Harrison twins have worked magic in the tournament, with the highlight being Aaron's propensity for game-winning shots—such as his trey to send the Wildcats to the title game:
While the two are great talents, they have yet to encounter anything like the UConn defenders tasked with shutting them down.
Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright have worked wonders defensively all tournament. For their latest feat, the duo shut down Florida star Scottie Wilbekin in the Final Four, holding him and Michael Frazier II to a combined seven points.
Kentucky has been fortunate the past two rounds to face offensive-minded teams in Michigan and Wisconsin, with the latter being more proficient defensively. But both are a step below UConn at this point, and if Aaron in particular doesn't have a major game, the Huskies are going home champions.
Will UConn Step Up in the Paint Once More?
The Huskies have been labeled somewhat "soft" down low, but recent numbers suggest otherwise.
In the Elite Eight, UConn surprisingly stepped up and held Michigan State's Adreian Payne to 13 points (4-of-14 shooting) and Branden Dawson to five points. In the Final Four, the Huskies' big men ruled the paint against Florida. Patric Young scored 19 points, but Will Yeguete was held to two points, and UConn won the battle on the glass.
The trend must continue for UConn to hoist the title. It's no easy task with a date against Julius Randle on the horizon.
Randle, outside of being one of the tournament's top players and an instant pro contributor, enters the game on a mission, as captured by CBS Sports' Matt Norlander:
I'm definitely not satisfied. We have one more game to go. We have been through a lot this year and we deserve to reward ourselves and go out there and play hard and give it all we got. So definitely not satisfied. Playing in my hometown, that really doesn't mean anything. I mean, the atmosphere was crazy.
The surely soon-to-be-pro forward is a major reason the Wildcats have ruled the glass, as detailed by ESPN's Fran Fraschilla:
Against an elite level of opponents in the tournament so far, the Wildcats have dominated the offensive glass, grabbing 43 percent of their missed shots. (The season-long national average, according to kenpom.com, was 31.4 percent.) UConn, on the other hand, has allowed the five teams it has faced to secure an offensive rebound rate of 29 percent.
A team as talented and deep as Kentucky (John Calipari literally has pro prospects for benchwarmers) will crush any opposition if it continues to get second chances via offensive rebounds.
On Monday, the Huskies must once again limit a star forward and rule the glass. Anything short of that will result in a disappointing end for Kevin Ollie and Co.
Shabazz Napier or Aaron Harrison?
It's a rather simple question—with no easy answer.
Shabazz Napier has been the bracket's best player by far, and while he has just 12 points against the Gators, his suffocating defense was the primary reason for victory.
As showcased above, his counterpart excels in the clutch. But so does Napier, as he showed regularly throughout the regular season, such as in a victory over the Gators in December:
This one is about the long haul, where experience may override talent. It sounds strange after so many clutch moments, but Harrison has to grow up in a hurry in the face of a veteran like Napier.
Matchups abound on Monday night, especially in the paint, but the point guard who can emerge from this duel will ensure his team the greatest chance at success.