HOUSTON -- From this giddy height, it's easy to forget Connecticut lost quite a few games this season. There's a definite pattern to how and when those losses occurred, however. That's what we'll examine here.
Any college basketball season can be divided into three parts -- non-conference play, league play and the postseason. UConn famously started the season on a tear, winning all 10 of their non-Big East tests. The Huskies' fifth game of the young season was against the team they play Friday night -- on Thanksgiving Eve, they beat Kentucky 84-67. How far they've come since then.
In the postseason, the Huskies won five straight games to secure the Big East's auto-bid, then ripped off another four to get to this point. The evidence leaves us to draw one obvious conclusion.
|Kemba Walker celebrates as UConn continues its undefeated postseason run with a win over Arizona. (Getty Images)|
Parse that record a little further, and you'll see that each of the nine losses came against a team that made the field of 68. The first loss of the season was a 78-63 road beating at the hands of a physical Pitt team. In that game, Kemba Walker scored 31 points and was the only player on his team to reach double figures. In that game, Alex Oriakhi had one rebound -- a notion that is inconceivable today. Freshmen Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith also were clearly not ready for prime time.
The rest of the teams that beat UConn -- Notre Dame twice, Louisville twice, then Syracuse, Marquette, St. John's and West Virginia -- did so by assigning an athletic defender to Walker and using pressure to disrupt the play of his inexperienced teammates.
UConn loses when they shoot badly, which should prompt an audible "well, duh" from the choir loft. But we're talking very, very badly. In both losses to Notre Dame, the Huskies shot around 45 percent, which is not too terrible. In every other loss, their shooting percentage fell well below 40 percent, with the lowest dipping to 32 percent at Pitt in UConn's Big East opener.
However, it's not always the defense on the floor that has made the difference when UConn loses. Believe it or not, sometimes Superman lets them down. In isolated cases this season, most notably a 74-67 overtime loss in Storrs to Marquette, Walker seemed temporarily human, committing turnovers, missing shots he usually makes and deferring to his teammates at crunch time.
A careful observer will note that those problems have not resurfaced for the better part of a month. That same observer may note that Kentucky has a passel of lengthy defenders, including the experienced DeAndre Liggins, who have seen Walker before. If there's a team in this tournament that stands a chance of replicating UConn's lack of success against Big East foes, it's the Wildcats, who have improved on defense since the teams first met in November.
"On the defensive part, we have been one of the best in the tournament," UK freshman Stacey Poole said. "Everybody is talking on defense and letting everybody know what they need to do."
It may take all five guys on the floor acting as one to stop Kemba Walker. Scratch that -- to slow Kemba Walker. It's instructive to note that a 20-point game is considered an off night for the No. 1 Husky. The problem with that plan is that Jeremy Lamb has become a second option to envy, and the Huskies are much bigger inside than the Wildcats.
In this tournament, Kentucky has played good defense, but has only truly clamped down on an opponent once. However, the team they held down, beat up and stole lunch money from was the uber-efficient Ohio State Buckeyes. If they can do that to the team with the No. 1 overall offense in the nation, they can do it to anyone.
It will be tough to beat Connecticut. Ask anyone who's played them over the past three weeks and you'll hear that it is, in fact, impossible. This is the Final Four, where the impossible is routine. The Huskies can be beat, as unlikely as it may sound.