NCAA Tournament Game Analysis: The National Championship GamePosted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on April 7th, 2014
#7 Connecticut vs. #8 Kentucky – National Championship Game (at Arlington, Texas) – 9:10 PM ET on CBS
History will be made in some form tonight at AT&T Stadium no matter which team wins this game. Connecticut is bidding to become the first #7 seed to ever win the national championship while Kentucky is looking to become the first #8 seed since Cinderella team Villanova toppled top-seeded Georgetown in 1985, the first year of the 64/68-team era. Kevin Ollie could become the first coach to win a championship in his first tournament appearance since Michigan’s Steve Fisher accomplished that feat a quarter-century ago in 1989 at Seattle’s Kingdome. John Calipari could win his second title in three seasons, this time with the nation’s most inexperienced team (according to Ken Pomeroy’s statistics). Something has to give in this game between what some observers have said are teams of destiny. Connecticut is going for the Texas triple play, so to speak, having closed out two previous Final Fours in the Lone Star State (2004 in San Antonio and 2011 in Houston) with championships while Kentucky has three players from the state on its roster, including hometown favorite Julius Randle. Connecticut is seeking its fourth national championship while Kentucky would earn its ninth with a win.
Kentucky has had some of its best offensive games of the season in this tournament. The Wildcats have not been defensive juggernauts, but timely stops and consistent offensive output have been the keys to their success over the last couple of weeks (along with clutch Aaron Harrison shots, of course). Going up against yet another strong defensive team in Connecticut (UK has already faced Kansas State, Wichita State and Louisville, all terrific on the defensive end) will be a test for the “Cardiac Cats.” At the point guard position, Andrew Harrison has to do a better job taking care of the basketball against the undersized, but quicker and pesky Huskies guards. He is averaging four turnovers per game in the tournament and making him uncomfortable needs to be part of the game plan for Ollie’s team. Daring Andrew Harrison shoot has been fairly successful for Kentucky’s opponents as he is just 18-for-52 (35 percent) from the floor in five tournament games, which even includes a solid 6-for-9 performance against Wichita State in the round of 32. By contrast, making his brother Aaron put the ball on the floor and drive is the best strategy for Connecticut. Aaron Harrison has made 14-of-25 threes (56 percent) in the tournament but he is just 8-for-27 (30 percent) when it comes to two point shots. Chasing him off the three point line and making him put it on the deck has to be a point of emphasis for Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright defensively. Kentucky is at its best when Andrew Harrison is moving the ball well, Aaron Harrison is open on the wing and James Young is either knocking down triples or slashing through the defense, opening up the lane for Randle in the post. Of course, Randle is so good and so strong that he can do a number of things on the low block. The freshman has 50+ pounds on Connecticut’s four man DeAndre Daniels and nearly 40 pounds on Phillip Nolan and Amida Brimah, both of whom are good defensively but also quite raw by the same token. Ollie may very well wrinkle in some zone to keep Kentucky out of the lane and dare it to make shots. However, that is still risky because of the ability of Aaron Harrison and Young to connect from the three point line. The Huskies are sneaky good when it comes to interior defense, allowing just 42.2 percent field goal shooting inside the three point arc. That will be tested against the stronger Randle and Dakari Johnson, who is very difficult to guard when he catches the ball deep in the post. Great interior defense is a staple of the Jim Calhoun era and a part of the Connecticut culture that Ollie has carried over while building the program his way.
When you look at Connecticut’s offense, the first thing you think of is Napier. However, Daniels could very well be the most important player on the floor for the Huskies. The “X-factor of all X-factors,” Daniels has seen the light in this tournament. In five games, the 6’9” junior forward is averaging 17.6 points and 7.4 rebounds while making 53.2 percent of his field goal attempts. Quite simply, Daniels turns what is a quality, top 25-caliber team into one that can play with and beat anyone while competing for a national title. Continued quality play from him is a necessity if the Huskies are going to cut down the nets this evening. Daniels may have a tough time scoring inside against the stronger Randle but his mid-range game and three point shooting (43.1 percent on the season) allows him to stretch the defense. If Daniels can make jump shots yet again in this game, that should help Connecticut’s offense run more efficiently. Daniels playing well opens up so much room for Napier and Boatright to operate and will make it very difficult for Kentucky to cover all of Connecticut’s primary offensive threats. Napier is going to get his points but the question is, how efficient can he be? When Napier plays poorly, he turns the ball over too much and forces difficult shots. Kentucky’s superior length will pose a problem for the Connecticut superstar and how he adjusts his game will be telling. If Napier chooses to beat the Wildcats with quickness and crisp ball movement to get others involved in the offense, his team stands a strong chance of winning. If he tries to play hero ball and forces contested jumpers, the Huskies will likely be dead in the water. Napier, Boatright and Daniels account for 60 percent of Connecticut’s point production on average and will undoubtedly be the focus of Calipari’s defensive game plan. All three likely have to play well for the Huskies to win, but keep a close eye on Niels Giffey. The 6’7” senior from Berlin is a very good three point shooter and plays almost exclusively on the perimeter where he matches up very well size-wise with Kentucky. If there is going to be a surprise player who has a breakout game, he could be the one.
Connecticut’s offense is heavily reliant on three pointers and free throws, which can be good and bad. Not many teams shoot the three-ball better but it cannot be the only facet of Connecticut’s offense tonight. The Huskies are among the nation’s best free throw shooting teams thanks to the aggressiveness of Boatright and Napier in getting to the charity stripe and knocking them down with regularity. The quickness of Connecticut’s guards versus the length and athleticism of Kentucky’s is the most fascinating matchup in this game and could very well decide the outcome. Coach Ollie went with a smaller lineup against Florida by inserting freshman guard Terrence Samuel into the game for 18 minutes and had great success in doing so. Samuel also had strong games against Villanova and Iowa State earlier in the tournament so Kentucky cannot ignore him if he sees extended minutes again. While Connecticut has certain advantages, the most significant may belong to Kentucky. Early in the second half against Wisconsin on Saturday, the Wildcats showed just how fearsome they can be on the offensive glass. Calipari’s team ranks second nationally in offensive rebounding percentage and has a distinct advantage over Connecticut on paper in that regard. However, Connecticut has rebounded the ball exceptionally well in this tournament compared to its season averages, hence why we said “on paper.” That said, the Huskies have not faced an offensive rebounding machine like these group of young Wildcats all year. Kentucky can also match or exceed Connecticut’s aggressiveness in terms of getting to the foul line. While the Wildcats do not shoot a great percentage from the stripe, they rank in the top 15 in free throw rate compared to #217 for the Huskies.
There are so many good matchups in this game between two exciting teams. It should be an entertaining game but it seems Connecticut may have to do more things well than Kentucky will in order to win. For example, the Huskies need each member of their big three to have strong games while Kentucky has more options for scoring if somebody is having an off night. For that reason, the Wildcats are slight favorites. Enjoy the final night of the college basketball season as it will be seven long months before this beautiful sport returns. It promises to be a memorable one.
The RTC Certified Pick: Kentucky.