National Championship Matchup: #8 Kentucky Vs. #7 Connecticut
- CoachingA legend in his own right, Wildcats coach John Calipari boasts an impressive and enviable resume in his time at Kentucky. Since 2009, Calipari has taken his team to the Final Four twice. He’s also been named National Coach of the Year three times in his career. Calipari is a players-first coach and his teams, especially when young, rally around him like no one else. These players may be less experienced, but Calipari is a master of wielding young talent.It’s only Kevin Ollie’s second season as the new UConn head coach, but already he’s got the Huskies all the way to the Elite Eight. The Huskies are rallying around their new coach in a big way this post-season and throughout the tournament, with no one expecting Ollie to have had this amount of success so soon, including toppling a top-seeded Florida team to make it to a national championship.
- OffenseThe Harrison twins—Andrew and Aaron—only combined for 17 points, but Aaron was the one who hit the three-pointer with only five seconds left to win the game for the Wildcats, much like he had in the previous game against Michigan. Julius Randle, a phenom in the regular season, scored 16 points and guard James Young added a valiant effort with 17 points of his own for the Wildcats against Wisconsin. Dakari Johnson was quiet, but scored in the double digits, proving that all of Kentucky’s starters can be a deep threat to win the championship.Guard Shabazz Napier will once again be the player to watch in this final matchup against Kentucky, with 17.8 points per game in the regular season, he’s already averaging over 20 ppg so far this tournament and takes control of a stacked offense with each new battle. It was another player, once again, who took command of the UConn offense for the second game in a row in forward DeAndre Daniels, who had 20 points and a double-double. Guards Ryan Boatright and Niels Giffey scored in the double digits, as well, in the Huskies’ Final Four win over Florida and should be watched in this championship to step up, as well.
- DefenseKentucky is one of the best rebounding teams in the country with 41.3 boards per game (5th in the nation). They also rank 9th with 6.2 blocks per game and their big men are capable of some stellar moves. The Wildcats have also been good at minimizing turnovers, which has given them a distinct edge up to this point in the Big Dance. Kentucky’s players are more athletic than Connecticut’s, and James Young gives UK a secret weapon in the backcourt. The Huskies have a potent offense, but the Wildcats have proven over and over in this tournament that they can slow down even the biggest and best, including Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, whom they held to only eight points in the Final Four.The Huskies had no easy task in putting a stop to the top Florida offense, but they managed to handle the Gators fairly easily despite a few hiccups early in the first few minutes. UConn only allowed 63.7 points per game in the regular season, and was eight overall in the nation in blocks. Connecticut’s defense made all the difference in the second half against Florida, cutting short any sense of momentum that the Gators could muster and keeping them without any scoring opportunities and making a number of steals late in the game.
- Bench DepthKentucky has a lot of freshman to boast on their starting squad, and they came through in the win against Louisville in the Sweet 16, with all of the Wildcats five freshman starters combining for 68 of the Wildcats’ 74 points. But the Wildcats proved with backup forwards Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee that their subs can play when needed when they added 12 points off the bench against the Badgers. Poythress also added seven rebounds in the effort.Connecticut got two huge performances from key bench players in their early round matchup with Villanova, including double digit scoring performances from guards Terrence Samuel and Lasan Kromah – so we know the talent is there. Lately, though, UConn doesn’t often have to rely on their bench with star Shabazz Napier hauling in 20+ points per night alongside the same from DeAndre Daniels, and nearly all of their starters scoring in the double digits. Of UConn’s bench players, Samuel can be the most consistent to be counted on for help when needed.
Connecticut gave one of their best performances of the tournament thus far against a top-seeded Florida team and looked solid and poised, but Kentucky has found a way to turn a team of extremely talented and inexperienced young players into what looks like the top team in the country. Both of these teams are stacked, and the Huskies have one of the nation’s top defenses, but the Wildcats are still hot and don’t look to cool off until after it’s all said and done. One thing is for sure, if you find yourself in a National Championship like both of these teams now do, it never, ever, hurts to have a leader like Kentucky’s John Calipari calling the shots.