March Madness has been whittled down from 68 to two teams. On Monday night UConn and Kentucky square off to cut down the nets.
If the Wildcats win, it will complete a roller coaster year what saw them go from preseason No. 1, to falling out of the polls, to a NCAA Men’s Tournament championship. If UConn claims the title, they will have come off a probationary year, defeated tournament darlings Michigan State and Florida, and given Kevin Ollie a championship in only his second year as coach.
As the bigger team, Kentucky should be able to control the boards – even without Willie Cauley-Stein. However, as Florida proved, you have to do something with it—namely, score. Future NBA First-Round pick Julius Randle is going to take what’s his down in the post, but the Wildcats need the Harrison twins to get going on both sides of the ball. Kentucky’s X-factor in this tournament has been the invigorated play of Alex Poythress. According to early reports, concerns over his injury during the post-game celebration against Wisconsin have been overblown. Kentucky will need to play better defense against a hungry U-Conn offenser, force bad passes, and cover U-Conn in the paint with multiple defenders to cause errant shots. Florida learned that leaving U-Conn open in the backcourt and behind the arc is a recipe for disaster, and Kentucky Coach John Calipari will need to have his team prepared to not make the same mistakes Florida did on defense if his team is to win.
For UConn, everything begins with Shabazz Napier. He is the rare player that can take over a game without posting big numbers in the stat department. Napier was largely held in check against Florida, yet he still controlled the game’s tempo. He created space and opened up the floor for the Huskies. The secret Huskie weapon will be Niels Giffey, who scored 11 points and grabbed 4 rebounds against Florida on Saturday. His height, accurate passing, and spot-on shot selection will be key to a U-Conn win.
DeAndre Daniels is a 6’9 challenge who can stretch the court and shoot from any distance on the floor. The Huskies have proven their ability to heat up at a moments notice and score at will. Much like Kentucky, they are a microwave that can get hot at any time. The three keys to this game will be shot selection, ability to lessen costly fouls, and keeping the emotions of the magnitude of this game in check on both teams.
Ultimately, both schools come in with chips on their shoulders. They are both proud programs with multiple titles under their belts, each having been underestimated both having underachieved pre-season expectations for long stretches on the season. Both teams have been in dogfights and are never completely out of it. This one looks to be a classic in the making.
If all else fails, and UConn holds anything less than a four-point lead in the final minute of the game, this should be their strategy:
Now it’s time to settle it: who wins the 2014 NCAA Championship?