UConn and Cincinnati: Trading Places in the PostseasonPosted by Will Tucker on April 5th, 2014
On March 8, 2014, Cincinnati and UConn looked like two teams headed in opposite directions. Having just hung 97 points on Memphis to complete a sweep of Josh Pastner’s team, the Bearcats went on the road and clinched a share of their first conference championship since 2004. That same day, Connecticut suffered an 81-48 drubbing at the hands of Louisville – the kind of humiliating end-of-season defeat that might spell doom for a team’s postseason.
To the Huskies’ credit, they had just beaten Cincinnati a week before, capping a 6-1 stretch that followed a road loss to the Bearcats in February. But Kevin Ollie’s team exhibited red some flags even before being massacred in Louisville. They had eclipsed 70 points during regulation only once in the past seven games. DeAndre Daniels, who in January I predicted was poised for a breakout season, scored in double figures only twice during the same time frame. UConn had been outrebounded in their previous six games by an average margin of 8.3 boards per game.
Cincinnati, conversely, looked like a physically imposing, battle-tested, and veteran squad that was prepared to usher the program beyond the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1996. Rebounding from consecutive close losses to Louisville and UConn, All-American Sean Kilpatrick was firing on all cylinders in his subsequent two games, averaging 29 points on 68 percent shooting. Fellow seniors Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles appeared up to the task of complementing Kilpatrick in the frontcourt. And after winning the number one seed in the AAC Tournament by way of a coin flip, the Bearcats seemed destined for a rematch with de facto home team Memphis, whom they had already twice beaten soundly.
And yet here we are in April, and UConn is playing for a spot in the NCAA championship game while Cincinnati watches from home. Kevin Ollie and his seniors have become the feel-good story of the Final Four, and East Region MVP Shabazz Napier has fully legitimized his title of AAC Player of the Year. Meanwhile, Mick Cronin has already turned his attention to next season’s daunting challenges, tasked with replacing three senior starters who, for all their accolades and individual accomplishments, never took Cronin beyond the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend. How do we account for such a swift and dramatic reversal?
In January, after Kilpatrick scored 28 points to lift the Bearcats over Louisville on the road, I commented on Twitter that he was making the strongest case for the league’s player of the year award. Pressed to defend my choice, I reasoned that he was in a better position than Napier because he would be asked to “play the hero” more often, while UConn’s point guard had more talent to lean on in times of crisis. Maybe I overestimated Kilpatrick’s ability and stamina, and maybe I underestimated how woefully challenged the rest of his team was on offense. Indeed, the 24-year-old redshirt senior carried the load in spectacular fashion during the regular season. But not having a DeAndre Daniels, Ryan Boatright or Niels Giffey waiting in the wings made Cincinnati’s roster vastly less equipped to make a run in March. In an unceremonious round of 64 loss to Harvard at the opposite end of the country, the Bearcats shot 38 percent inside the arc while their triumvirate of senior starters went 14-of-37 from the field.
Another factor that some, myself included, dismissed for far too long this season is Shabazz Napier’s big-game pedigree. Long before his buzzer-beater against Florida and other recent late-game dramatics, Napier played 27 minutes in a national championship game. Kemba Walker clearly asserted ownership of that team, but Napier used the second-highest percentage of possessions in 2010-11, averaged 7.6 points and 3.0 assists per game, and finished with the team’s best steal percentage. He’s the only remaining member of that freshman class who played a meaningful role that the championship team, and that experience couldn’t be more indispensable for a squad that, prior to last month, hadn’t won an NCAA game since (although, to be fair, they weren’t allowed to play in the Big Dance last season).
What few could have presaged during the season was that Napier would have an opportunity to play Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games in Madison Square Garden, the temple sanctified by Walker and countless other UConn guards over two decades of Big East Tournaments. Like Walker, his protégé plays with an ethereal poise in the Huskies’ “third home,” aided by sympathetic spectators, and this time was no different. Two days after Russ Smith missed a half-dozen crucial free throws against Kentucky, Napier calmly drained 9-of-9 from the stripe against Michigan State in the Garden, including three straight to ice the game in the final minute.
Navigating a college basketball season is a never a straightforward procedure, but this year in particular, momentum seems to be the most essential ingredient. Teams that peaked too early collapsed precipitously (see: Syracuse, Kansas), and those that gelled only at the end seem to have thrived more than usual (see: Kentucky, Tennessee). Cincinnati’s flaws were intractable, terminal vulnerabilities that NCAA Tournament-caliber competition could exploit any time Kilpatrick downshifted from transcendent to good. Kevin Ollie’s team, on the other hand, spent the two weeks that followed that blowout loss in Louisville making incremental improvements and expanding the arsenal around Shabazz Napier. Once entrenched in the Garden, buoyed by the adoration of its crowds and the weight of UConn folklore, the rest was history.