One of the craziest and most unpredictable NCAA tournaments comes to what is sure to be a stunning conclusion on Monday night when the Connecticut Huskies and Kentucky Wildcats battle it out for the national championship.
There are storylines overflowing in this matchup, so trying to narrow things down means that you are giving short change to something that would normally be front and center in a normal title game.
It's a testament to the way Connecticut and Kentucky have played the last three weeks that there is no clear favorite heading into this game. Here are the things that we are looking for in North Texas.
Willie Cauley-Stein's absence
Most teams would consider the loss of a seven-foot center like Willie Cauley-Stein a huge blow to the roster. Of course, when you are John Calipari recruiting a McDonald's All-American team every year, there are certain things your team can endure better than most.
The Associated Press, via ESPN.com, reported that Cauley-Stein's ankle injury is going to prevent him from playing in the national championship game. The sophomore hasn't played since leaving the Sweet 16 contest against Louisville.
Kentucky hasn't skipped a beat without the seven-footer in the lineup, scoring 46 points in the paint against Wisconsin in the Final Four, and the Wildcats still have plenty of size with Julius Randle (6'9") and Alex Poythress (6'8") handling the paint.
Connecticut, though, isn't like any other team Kentucky has played in the NCAA tournament. The Huskies can drive to the basket with anyone in the country. Florida learned that the hard way, giving up 26 points in the paint during the second half.
The Gators have, at least statistically, a better defense than Kentucky, which has been allowing 72.5 points per game in its last four games.
Something has to give in this game. Either Connecticut finds a way to exploit Kentucky on the inside, or the Wildcats continue their domination in the paint en route to winning a national title.
Connecticut's stifling defense
When you look at Kevin Ollie's roster, it's easy to get lost in the offensive firepower being run out there on a nightly basis. Shabazz Napier is the star of the show, scoring 93 points in the first four tournament games.
But the one thing that has defined Connecticut in the 2014 NCAA tournament is defense. The Huskies have held three of their five opponents to 65 points or less, with Michigan State and Florida combining for just 107 points in the Elite Eight and Final Four, respectively.
Even a player like Napier, who was held in check offensively against Florida with 12 points, along with Ryan Boatright, stifled the Gators' best shooter on Saturday night.
Scottie Wilbekin was 0-for-5 on FG when guarded by Ryan Boatright and turned the ball over on 3 of 4 plays when guarded by Shabazz Napier.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 6, 2014
Kentucky's ascension this tournament has come thanks to the development of outside shooters like Aaron Harrison, who has already made three critical three-point shots in this tournament.
If it's a close game in the final minute, don't expect Connecticut to give Harrison the same amount of space Wisconsin did before he nailed the game-winning three-pointer.
The Huskies have stepped up the intensity with the ball in their opponent's hands, but they've yet to face a team with as much raw talent as Kentucky.
Kentucky's second-half adjustments
With the exception of the second-round game against Kansas State, Kentucky has either tied or trailed at halftime in every game of the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats have been outscored 140-135 in the first half of their last four games but have dominated opponents in the second half (166-142). Calipari has been a master at figuring out what's not working for his team, implementing a new plan and getting the players to execute it.
A perfect example of Calipari's meticulous nature came against Wisconsin in the Final Four. The Wildcats were trailing 40-36 at the half, then the Badgers hit a three-point shot to take a seven-point lead 53 seconds into the second half.
Calipari immediately called a timeout and readjusted his players and plan of attack. Then Kentucky went on a 15-0 run to take a 51-43 lead with less than 15 minutes to play.
@UKCoachCalipari - Timeout 1 minute in in the second half was knowing ur team. 15-0 run follows. That was KY at its best. Filthy talented— Chris Dimino (@chrisdimino) April 6, 2014
Connecticut has had to make adjustments of its own, trailing by 12 early against Florida and by four at the half against Michigan State, but those were games that you could feel slowly turned the Huskies' way before the second half started.
Kentucky has had to switch everything it was trying to do in the first half. It's paid off thus far, but does Calipari have one more rabbit to pull out of the hat?
Only a fool would bet against him at this point.
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