Championship Monday is the best and worst day of the college basketball season. It’s bittersweet, though, because after an excessively entertaining tournament, after the final 40 minutes of the season play out, only a month and a half of NBA playoffs stand between sports fans and the doldrums of a baseball-filled summer.
Still, it feels silly to complain. As Grantland’s Mark Titus wrote, “this year’s tournament was the best since last year’s.” But that still undersells it; this has been a dance for the ages.
The tournament was wide open not because of a lack of quality teams, but because of an excess of them. The consensus among experts was that around 10 teams had a legitimate shot of winning the title.
And yet, the tournament spoiled us. It produced a final both wholly unexpected and deliciously intriguing. Connecticut and Kentucky were afterthoughts when the tournament began. That they’re the last teams standing is either a reflection on poor seeding by the selection committee or proof that the regular season is irrelevant. Or both.
What’s ironic about this matchup is that Kentucky’s run has been that of the archetypal Cinderella tournament. Lowly seeded and lightly regarded, the Wildcats were no lock to even make it out of the first round. They were, at most, the fifth-best team in the Midwest region.
But the Wildcats ran through three of last year’s Final Four teams: undefeated Wichita State; arch-rival Louisville, who was coming off an 81-48 destruction of Connecticut at the end of conference play; and sweet-shooting, hectic-paced Michigan.
With Saturday’s win over Wisconsin, Kentucky’s remarkable run includes four victories over higher-seeded teams, all by five points or less, two on last-second shots. Were the Wildcats any other team, this would be an underdog story equivalent to North Carolina State’s unlikely championship in 1983.
But only in the strangest of seasons would the preseason No. 1, a team with seven (seven!) McDonald’s All-Americans and the best freshman class since the Fab Five be considered a Cinderella.
Kentucky looked nothing like a championship contender during the regular season, but the narrative was always, “if they start playing as a team, instead of five individuals, they’ll be great.”
Well, the talent finally coalesced. James Young and the Harrison Twins started driving to the hoop with reckless abandon, creating an inside-out, drive-and-kick offense that shares the ball much more efficiently than it did in the regular season. Julius Randle, the Wildcats’ most consistent player all year, has been a beast in the paint and was fortunate enough to not be matched against any front-court players who could keep him off the offensive glass.
Aaron Harrison, despite three consecutive game-winning three-pointers, has been in a slump most of the tournament. His four late treys against Michigan were his only points of the game, and his dagger against Wisconsin was only Kentucky’s second three of the game.
Wisconsin’s John Gasser smartly played off of Harrison to deny him the drive and an opportunity to take a much better shot in the paint or to draw a foul. Wisconsin would give Harrison that shot every time. If the situation arises, so will Connecticut.
The Huskies are even more unheralded than the Wildcats, but their success in the tournament should not be so surprising. Two of Connecticut’s starters, Shabazz Napier and Niels Giffey, contributed to the Huskies’ last national championship in 2011 (that team, coincidentally, beat Kentucky in the Final Four).
Connecticut fell off the national map when they were blown out by Iowa State in the first round of the tournament the following season, and spent last season ineligible for postseason play because of a terrible academic record.
That season, coach Kevin Ollie’s first, was not a total loss. Napier stepped into a starring role for the first time after spending two years as a second and third option behind Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb. He learned to assert himself in a season free of pressure.
Napier’s emergence and Connecticut’s improbable run inevitably invite comparisons to the 2011 championship team. Yes, both teams starred small, score-first, cold-blooded point guards (Walker in 2011, Napier now), and both were unexpected finalists. But the similarities end there.
Walker literally carried the Huskies’ 2011 team on his back; he won most of its tournament games single-handedly, with occasional contributions from Lamb. This year’s Connecticut team is a more complete squad than many give them credit for. Yes, Napier is the star, but the Huskies boast a three-pronged offensive attack with Napier, fellow guard Ryan Boatright and swingman DeAndre Daniels.
Connecticut’s unconventional lineups are the key to their success. Napier and Boatright are literally the same player. They’re both diminutive (6-feet-tall, around 170 pounds) ball-dominant guards who can score inside and out. Most teams would struggle with two such starters, but the Huskies use them well.
Napier and Boatright give Connecticut two players capable of initiating their offense in a fast break or in half-court sets. They’re both competent enough off the ball that the Huskies can comfortably ride the hot hand. They also defend well as a tandem; together, they forced Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin into the worst game of his career in the Final Four.
Daniels, though, will need to have a big game if the Huskies are to defeat Kentucky. The lanky junior is positionally amorphous; he can play shooting guard and either forward spot. His game is unconventional. He’s a good shooter and cutter and hits turnaround jumpers in the post and on the wings from both sides, but he doesn’t handle the ball well.
Because of Daniels’ versatility, Connecticut should play him at power forward to force Julius Randle to guard him on the perimeter, keeping the best rebounder in the country away from the paint. That creates an interesting conundrum, though. Will Giffey guard the smaller, faster James Young? And how will Napier and Boatright contend against the bigger, more athletic Harrison twins?
Kentucky has the advantage, at least on paper, for most one-on-one matchups, other than Daniels-Randle. But if the Wildcats are to win, they must accomplish what Florida failed to do on Saturday: Contain the Huskies’ ball screens.
Florida showed hard, trapped pick-and-rolls for the first 10 minutes against Connecticut, harassing Napier and Boatright and denying them any good looks or driving lanes. Then, through laziness or fatigue, they started sagging and going under screens. The Huskies dominated the rest of the game.
Napier and Boatright are both excellent pull-up three-point shooters when coming off of ball screens. Daniels’ size and shooting make him a deadly pick-and-pop threat. Kentucky needs to trap hard and fast whenever Connecticut sets a pick.
For the Huskies, the best counter would be to have Daniels fake setting high screens to draw the trap to Napier or Boatright, then pop out for a three, or cut to the paint, setting up open look either for himself or for a teammate whose defender comes to help.
The coaching matchup is as intriguing as the one on the court. Kentucky’s John Calipari has loomed over college basketball for two decades. He’s taken three schools to the Final Four, and this is his third in five years as the Wildcats’ coach. His teams churn out lottery picks annually, and he might be the best recruiter of all time.
But Calipari’s coaching abilities are often discounted by the pundits who dislike that he runs, essentially, a semi-pro team.
It’s rarely mentioned that Calipari introduced the dribble-drive offense to major college basketball, an offense that now permeates all levels of the sport. And he takes kids less than a year removed from high school, molds them into teams and gets them into the lottery.
In both respects, this year might be his best coaching job ever. His formerly disjointed team is playing as a unit and executing the dribble-drive to perfection.
His counterpart, Connecticut’s Kevin Ollie, is still an unknown quantity. Only 41 years old, this is just Ollie’s second season leading the Huskies. Before replacing longtime coach Jim Calhoun, Ollie played point guard at Connecticut and spent 13 seasons in the NBA.
It’s no coincidence that Napier and Boatright emerged in Ollie’s two years leading the Huskies. Ollie has already established himself as an excellent leader and motivator.
He played his last season in the NBA with the Oklahoma City Thunder; Kevin Durant recently told ESPN’s Bill Simmons that Ollie not only helped Russell Westbrook and James Harden develop as players but instilled a winning culture in the Thunder locker room.
Tonight’s championship pits this rising star against the established winner, one Cinderella-like team against another. It’s sad for the best tournament in recent memory to have to end, but after three exhilarating weeks, the final can be nothing short of a classic.
So, let’s enjoy one more, shall we? Only one team will emerge victorious, but this tournament will really have two winners: either Connecticut or Kentucky, and college basketball fans.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Tommy Wood at Thomas.firstname.lastname@example.org