ARLINGTON, Texas – Back in October, my college basketball season started at Big Blue Madness in Lexington. And now, it will end with Kentucky playing for the national championship against Connecticut outside of Dallas. Can the Wildcats win their second title in three seasons? Can Connecticut win its fourth championship in 15 years?
No. 7 Connecticut vs. No. 8 Kentucky (9:10 p.m., CBS)
At the beginning of the season, no one would have batted an eye if Kentucky were in the title game. The Wildcats were preseason No. 1 and had the most talent in the country. Then they had an up and down regular season, eventually falling out of the top 25 heading into the NCAA Tournament. And now they're back in the national championship game.
And that's not the more unbelievable of the two stories heading into the title game. Connecticut was on NCAA probation last season, with a new head coach that had never been a head coach before. The Huskies lost by 33 in the regular season finale, and then by double-digits again in the AAC tournament. And now they're back in the national championship game.
Connecticut's offense vs. Kentucky's defense
There's no question the first priority for Kentucky's defense will focus on Shabazz Napier. Napier is obviously Connecticut's primary option on the offensive end, running him through constant ball-screens and hoping to catch the defense on a bad switch or a slow hedge. Kentucky will likely try to switch, although Connecticut's small lineup on Saturday night caused Florida a ton of trouble. The Wildcats can switch one through four most of the time, but having Dakari Johnson guard Niels Giffey or DeAndre Daniels could be tough for the Wildcats.
Daniels will once again be a major key for Connecticut's offense. He has to be a guy who can take the pressure off Napier and be a go-to scorer. Julius Randle is capable of defending Daniels, but when he gets his inside-outside game going, there are few players more difficult to defend. The Huskies will try to stretch the floor and get Johnson on Giffey away from the rim, opening up driving lanes for Napier and Ryan Boatright. Wisconsin got open looks from 3 on Saturday, and Connecticut is just as good a 3-point shooting team as the Badgers. Despite everything, it's still going to be Napier or bust for Connecticut. Even when he doesn't score a ton, like against Florida on Saturday night, he's still the focal point of the offense.
Kentucky's offense vs. Connecticut's defense
Throughout the NCAA Tournament, the thought was that Connecticut couldn't handle the size of opponents. Last weekend, it was Michigan State. How could the Huskies defend Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson? On Saturday, it was Florida. How could the Huskies battle with Patric Young down low? And on Monday, it will be Kentucky. Can Connecticut handle Randle and Johnson in the post? On paper, the answer is no. Especially when the Huskies go with their small lineup, guys like Daniels and Giffey aren't strong enough down low. But on Saturday, Connecticut basically dared Florida to go through Young every possession, and it didn't work until late in the game. I'm expecting Phil Nolan and Amida Brimah to play bigger roles on Monday, as they provide some more size and strength.
Connecticut also needs to keep Kentucky out of the lane. Napier and Boatright have been very solid defenders in the NCAA Tournament, with Boatright being an absolute pest the past few games. Terrence Samuel and Lasan Kromah have provided some more physical defense when they come in on the wing. Andrew and Aaron Harrison have been getting more confident as the season has progressed, and Connecticut can't let either one get going. Kromah or Samuel also have to be on James Young when he catches it. If Young or Aaron Harrison get hot from the perimeter, Kentucky is brutal to guard. At the end of the day, Connecticut has to keep Kentucky off the offensive glass and away from the free-throw line.