#7 Connecticut vs. #8 Kentucky– 9:10 p.m.
Despite a year in which college basketball parity was pretty evident, most prognosticators (myself included) went with favorites to make the Final Four. Now here we are with a title game between a #7 and #8 seed. Very few people saw these two teams making the final, as evidenced by your office pool. They both triumphed over #1, #2, and #4 seeds to get here, so the path was definitely not an easy one.
In fairness, we’re not talking about mid-major programs or lesser-known major programs. We’re talking about two schools responsible for five of the last 16 national championships. We’re talking about teams who were ranked in the top 10 earlier in the season with Kentucky ranked as high as #1 in the country in the preseason polls. There’s plenty of high-end college basketball, if not NBA, talent everywhere on the floor. We’re in store for one hell of a game.
UConn’s victory over Florida has been undermined to a certain extent. “Florida played very poorly” is the line you’re hearing from a lot of people. Florida honestly didn’t play its best game of the year. They got caught up in the flow of the game, made silly turnovers and took bad shots. The wrong guys were taking three-pointers and any offense led by Patrick Young isn’t an offense that’s winning a title, let alone making the title game.
But UConn helped push Florida into that poor play with strong play of their own. Ryan Boatwright’s on-ball defense was phenomenal, completely cutting off the head of Florida’s offense. Both he and Shabazz Napier were able to control UConn’s offensive game, helping get the Huskies the right shots when they needed baskets. DeAndre Daniels again played at an elite level, making a couple early clutch threes to re-awaken the offense before finishing with 20 points and 10 rebounds.
Everyone’s focused on Kentucky because of their well-known freshmen even though they haven’t played well defensively and needed Aaron Harrison to make a clutch three-pointer in their last three wins. Kentucky’s defense has given up 1.23, 1.08, 1.27 and 1.22 points-per-possession in their last four wins. (H/T to Andy Glockner for those numbers.) They’re not exactly shutting down the opponents in the same way Connecticut has. Kentucky has beaten really good teams to make it this far, arguably better teams than Connecticut faced, but they’re really getting through by the skin of their teeth.
When it comes to these two teams facing each other, Kentucky should have the same edge it had against Wisconsin in terms of backcourt height, but Connecticut’s guards are different than Wisconsin’s. They can create their shots a lot easier and are better distributors of the basketball. They’re also more capable of scoring in transition. Connecticut should also have the size to match Kentucky’s on the front line.
It took me a while to figure out where my head was at for this game because picking the winner is truly a crapshoot. Is Kentucky a team of destiny based on those three-pointers from Harrison? Is UConn the reason Michigan State and Florida played poorly or did they just have bad days? After much debate, I’m going with UConn tonight. I think their defense makes the difference and they’ll be able to get their shots when they need to. Florida got swayed into taking bad shots and Kentucky’s personnel is just as capable of doing the same.
Vegas Best Bets:
UConn +2.5 over Kentucky – For all the reasons stated above.
UConn & Kentucky Under 135 – UConn’s defense and some title game nerves are what I’m banking on here.
DeAndre Daniels to win Most Outstanding Player (+500) – He already went for 20 and 10, so he’s well on his way. Napier didn’t have a great first game, so Daniels is clearly in the driver’s seat if UConn wins.
[Photo: © Kevin Hoffman/USA Today Sports]