Rushed Reactions: #7 Connecticut 60, #8 Kentucky 54

Posted by rtmsf on April 8th, 2014

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Rush the Court is covering the Final Four from Arlington, Texas, this weekend.

Three Key Takeaways.

Kevin Ollie is a First Time Participant and National Champion

Kevin Ollie is a First Time Participant and National Champion

  1. Shabazzketball. Shabazz Napier said after the game that he told his teammates back in a January home loss to Louisville — the first of three to the defending national champs, none of which were close — that he believed in his team and that they were going to make a run to eventually win the National Championship. While there’s no way to know if Napier is joshing us or simply retelling a tidbit that the team probably repeated many times during the season, the salient point is that Connecticut fulfilled the prophecy to once again raise the gold trophy for the fourth time in 16 seasons. The brash, cocksure point guard from the Boston area is the primary reason why. Napier’s 22 points (including four big threes), six rebounds, and three steals have become par for the course throughout Connecticut’s run to the title, but on a night when the team needed a first half lift because DeAndre Daniels was slow getting started, Napier’s 15 points allowed the Huskies to build an early cushion to put the pressure on Kentucky to make yet another second half comeback. The comeback happened twice, but each time that the Wildcats had whittled the lead down to one point, Napier had an answer. His first response was right out of the half, when he drove into the lane to earn two free throws (both makes, of course); the more important second instance was with six minutes remaining, when it appeared that UConn was wearing down and the Cats were surging forward. Napier put an end to that notion with a calm and accurate three-pointer to push the lead back up to four. After a subsequent Randle two and Giffey three, Kentucky never got closer than four points for the rest of the game. There aren’t many players these days who stick around long enough to win two national titles, and especially three years apart, but Napier has certainly proven that he belongs among the list of greats for his performances in March Madness.
  2. Kevin Ollie Bum Rushes the Tourney. The last time a coach won the national title in his first appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the year was 1989 and Michigan’s brand-new head coach Steve Fisher led Glen Rice and friends on a magical run to victory. Kevin Ollie had a little more experience coming into this year’s Dance than Fisher was awarded some 25 years ago, but he should absolutely be commended for the belief that he instilled in his players and the resolve that they exhibited on the court during this Tournament. They beat teams bigger than them, more physical than them, deeper than them, better shooters than them, and more experienced than them. What you’re going to read about a lot in the next 24 hours is how it was UConn’s defensive commitment and resolve that won the school its fourth championship. While the Huskies played excellent defense in the gut-check games against the likes of Michigan State, Florida and Kentucky over the past 10 days (holding the three teams to 0.90, 0.93 and .90 points per possession), it was actually the hyper-efficiency of UConn’s offense that made the difference. Over the six-game NCAA Tournament run, Kevin Ollie’s team never dipped below a 1.00 PPP average (vs. Michigan State and Kentucky), and it maxed out with a necessary 1.24 PPP mark against St. Joseph’s and a 1.23 PPP mark against Iowa State. It’s not a true calculation because every game is different, but some back-0f-the-envelope math suggests that the Huskies averaged about 1.11 PPP in its six wins while holding opponents to 0.99 PPP on the other end. And it did so against five of KenPom’s top 20 teams, with the strange outlier the game against St. Joseph’s that UConn very well could have lost. Crazy.
  3. Kentucky’s Magical Run Ends One Game Short. This Kentucky basketball season was without question one of the strangest that we’ve ever experienced. The highs and lows of it were simply astonishing. From a preseason #1 ranking and at least mild entertainment of the idea of an unbeaten 40-0 season, to the harsh reality of non-conference losses to Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina, to head-scratching but not awful SEC losses to Arkansas, LSU and Florida, to end-of-season disasters vs. Arkansas in Rupp and on the road at South Carolina and Florida, to The Tweak before the SEC Tournament and a solid performance there, to the subsequent three weeks of phenomenal play — especially at the end of games against high-quality competition — that ran all the way to the verge of a National Championship. Life is stranger than fiction, and it certainly felt coming into tonight that all the jabbering about 1-and-done and right way/wrong way and the rest of the related nonsense surrounding John Calipari and how he runs his program was going to be finally put to rest. Alas, UConn had other ideas. Regardless of tonight’s outcome for the Wildcats, there’s absolutely no shame in a runner-up finish, and most Kentucky fans would have taken that in a heartbeat in early March. As for Calipari, this was without question one of his finest coaching jobs — he very nearly lost this team at the end of the season, but he was able to use his magic wand to get their attention, buy into his conceptual framework of team and selflessness, and damn near ran his team to another National Championship. Because of his recruiting prowess, he doesn’t get the credit he deserves, but he’s a top-five coach in this game no matter how you slice it.

Star of the Game. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut. We covered his numbers, his all-around game, his leadership and his swagger above, but it needs to be said again. The six-game run from the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player was one of the more impressive that we’ve seen in a number of years. The most obvious comparison is with UConn’s very own Kemba Walker in 2011, but what many forget about his run is that he had a couple of huge games but his entire NCAA Tournament performance from a shooting perspective was somewhat inefficient. Walker shot a cool 42 percent from the field during his run three seasons ago, while Napier clocked in at a heartier 46 percent from the field in his six games (with really only one rough shooting performance coming against St. Joseph’s). Furthermore, Napier’s defensive performances on the Florida and Kentucky guards — tougher Final Four match-ups than what Walker faced vs. Kentucky and Butler — were nothing short of spectacular. Napier’s performances may not have been as in your face as Walker’s explosive ones, but a fair case can be made that Napier’s run as a whole was actually more impressive.

Quotable.

  • “It started 18 months ago. We did it the right way.” — UConn head coach Kevin Ollie, talking about the process from the time he took over the reins as the program’s new head coach to tonight’s championship.
  • “What did I tell you when we lost to Louisville at home?” – Shabazz Napier, describing what he said to his teammates after that Louisville loss, on the trophy podium tonight.
  • “Somebody told me we was Cinderellas. [shaking head] No, we’re UConn. We’re born for this. Championships.” — Ollie, describing the perception of his program from within.
  • NCAA Moderator: “Kevin Ollie, the coach of the 2014 National Champions.” Ollie: “That’s sweet!” — as the press conference came to a close, clearly reveling in the moment.
  • “We couldn’t foul late. I know people are asking ‘Why didn’t you foul?” Because they’re not missing. Those guards never miss. Our best chance was two-possession game, stop and make a basket, timeout, you know, try to steal. That was our best chance. And we had our chance. We just you know missed the shots and free throws we needed to make.” — Kentucky head coach John Calipari, on the Wildcats’ late-game strategy that puzzled many people.
  • “I come back to, as it wound down and it was a three-point game, they needed more from me. And you’re talking all freshmen out there. They needed more from me. So I wish I had a couple more answers to create something easier for them.” – Calipari, on how his freshmen needed him a bit more in this game to pull through.
  • The Lakers have a basketball coach. Kentucky has a basketball coach. I got the best job in the country. I’m not going to even dignify that stuff.” — Calipari, refuting a pregame report from Rex Chapman that he was going to take the Lakers job, win or lose, after their season is over.
  • “I’ve never coached a team this young. Never. Hope I don’t ever again. I think all these kids are coming back, so we should be good.” – Calipari, kidding around on the podium.

Sights & Sounds. The Final Four always brings out the celebs and dignitaries, and this year’s event in Dallas was no different. A rousing cheer led to all smiles from former two-term presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as they were pictured on the jumbotron. The best part of this image, though, might be the photobomb from Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback, Tony Romo (under Clinton), who has seemingly been everywhere this weekend.

Dubya and Bubba Sharing a Post-Presidential Moment at the Final Four

Dubya and Bubba Sharing a Post-Presidential Moment at the Final Four

What’s Next? Everyone’s headed home for the offseason, as Connecticut heads back to Storrs as the national champions for the fourth time in a 15-year period (16 seasons). Kentucky will head back to Lexington with a stinging loss, but undoubtedly pride in what they were able to accomplish after so many had written them off this season.

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