Don't let the seed numbers fool you; in Monday night's national championship matchup between the Connecticut Huskies and Kentucky Wildcats, we have two very good teams with distinct strengths and weaknesses that should make for an interesting chess match between the two coaches. Where does each team hold the advantage? Let's take a look at my five biggest keys to victory in Monday's title game.
1. UConn’s defensive game plan
After 13 seasons playing in the NBA for guys such as Chuck Daly, Larry Brown and Don Nelson, Kevin Ollie has a Ph.D. in basketball that he simply could not have earned as an assistant at the college level. The NBA season is timed in dog years compared with the length of a college basketball season, and the games are longer and have many more possessions. The nightly game plans are designed to try to neutralize the best offensive players in the world.
It’s apparent that Ollie was paying attention. He has shown great defensive acumen in this tournament on a number of occasions. Michigan State’s Adreian Payne, who had a size and experience advantage against the Huskies’ front line, was treated like Kevin Garnett and attempted only four of his 14 shots inside the 3-point arc. The ball was double-teamed out of his hands anytime he caught it near the lane.
Expect that UConn will jam up Julius Randle with traps and help-side defense and try to contain the Wildcats’ dribble penetration from Andrew Harrison and James Young. Saint Joseph's coach, Phil Martelli, whose team lost to the Huskies in the round of 64, told me that UConn was in perfect defensive position more than any other team the Hawks faced all season. That was evident against Florida, and it will be the game plan against Kentucky.
2. Backcourt play for both sides
Napier, who played second banana to Kemba Walker on the Huskies' 2011 national championship team, has been outstanding through the first five games of the tournament, and it has been about more than just his scoring. He has controlled the speed of his team’s possessions, running the fast break opportunistically and orchestrating half-court offense when it wasn’t. And his clutch shooting has been a given.
Boatright has been a perfect complement to Napier. He allows Napier to rest on offense by taking the ball out of his hands at times, and, together with Napier, has hounded opposing backcourts with significant ball pressure. Florida was able to manufacture only three assists on 19 baskets because of that harassment.
Kentucky’s turnaround in the NCAA tournament has largely coincided with the maturation and the clutch play of Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison. After being maligned for much of the season, they have led the Wildcats through one of the toughest gantlets of games in NCAA tournament history.
Aaron’s clutch 3-pointers versus Michigan and Wisconsin have kept the Wildcats’ season alive, and he has made 14 of 25 shots from deep so far in the tournament. And, although Andrew’s numbers have not been stellar, he has averaged 5 assists per tournament game, gotten to the foul line 26 times and set an attacking tone for John Calipari’s team.
3. Kentucky’s pick-and-roll defense
With UConn relying heavily on NBA-oriented pick-and-roll schemes, the Wildcats must be very alert to keep Napier and Boatright from getting too much of the paint off the dribble. Although Randle and Alex Poythress move their feet well in defending ball screens, Dakari Johnson is exploitable. So, defending in these situations requires the involvement of all five Wildcats defenders and not just the two at the point of attack.
Kentucky has shown an ability to switch at four and, sometimes, five positions, but the Wildcats must be careful not to switch themselves into mismatches. Napier is an expert at smelling out an opportunity to drive versus a bigger defender and attack the rim. He’ll have to finish over Kentucky’s size inside -- which won’t be easy.
4. Randle and DeAndre Daniels
Both big men have been dominating in the NCAA tournament, but for different reasons. Randle, who had four double-doubles in Kentucky’s first four games, is a freight train who is using his size, quickness and relentlessness to get to the basket. He is the focal point of the Wildcats’ offense, and he will see traps, especially early. Like a quarterback picking up blitzes, Randle must make good decisions with the ball to find open teammates when the heat comes.
Daniels, on the other hand, will be a headache for Calipari and his team, as much from the perimeter as from the paint. In five games thus far, he has made 10 3-point shots on 42 percent shooting, and he really caused problems for Florida when Ollie used him at center because he stretched the defense with his range.
Daniels will be challenged defensively by Calipari, as Kentucky will try to throw the ball inside to take advantage of its size. But Randle and Poythress must be alert to guard Daniels all over the floor in this matchup.
5. Kentucky’s offensive rebounding
I am convinced that the Huskies will have an excellent defensive game plan with which to start the game. But because the best way to end a defensive possession is to force a turnover or grab a defensive rebound, rebounding deserves its own separate category in this game. And this might be the area that makes the difference for Kentucky.
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.
If UConn can neutralize the Wildcats on the glass and take away second shot opportunities, I believe it can win this game. But that will not be easy.