KENTUCKY VS. CONNECTICUT
Matchup: Two storied programs go toe-to-toe in this Final Four matchup. For all the Cinderella stories in the other semifinal contest, this game features two larger-than-life coaches with well-known, ultra-talented rosters.
Coach Jim Calhoun leads a Connecticut squad that was picked to finish 10th in the Big East entering the season; however, Kemba Walker quickly dashed any thoughts of a down season at UConn with a sizzling start that carried the Huskies all the way through the Big East Championship and to Final Four berth. Walker's game has risen to a whole different level this season, including canning numerous clutch, game-winning jumpers. He appears to have ice in his veins.
Meanwhile, coach John Calipari leads his third Final Four team, this time in the form of the young and hungry Kentucky Wildcats. UK lost first-round draft picks to the NBA, and many people thought last year's squad, bounced in the Elite Eight, was more talented than this year's version. Nevertheless, the magic of Coach Cal yielded a new crop of freshman sensations in Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb that carried the Wildcats to where they had not been since 1998.
Let's delve deeper into each team's strengths, weaknesses and game plans for this epic tilt.
Kentucky Wildcats, East Region No. 4 seed
Backcourt: The discussion about Kentucky begins and ends with Brandon Knight. The Wildcats would not be in Houston if not for the play of their dazzling freshman point guard, who beat both Princeton and Ohio State with last-second heroics. He also poured in 30 points against West Virginia. Knight is the motor for the UK engine, with the speed to get to the rack and the stroke to sink the jumpers from the outside. Felow freshman Doron Lamb is a sharpshooter who makes 48.1 percent of his three-pointers; defenders helping on Knight or on the interior likely will get burned if they leave Lamb alone beyond the three-point arc. Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins add veteran stability to the group, with Miller the better shooter and Liggins the better defender. Liggins had a key block and trey to seal UK's win against North Carolina.
Frontcourt: The Wildcats front line has been a force to be reckoned with this postseason. Senior Josh Harrelson is playing the best ball of his career, notching two double-doubles in four tournament tilts, while shooting a blistering 69.4 percent from the field. At 6-foot-10, 275, he is finally in shape and difficult to move once he gets post position. Meanwhile, Terrence Jones was SEC Freshman of the Year and can score in a variety of ways. Jones managed 15.8 points and 8.7 rebounds this season, operating mostly from within 15 feet. However, he does have the ability to step out and hit the occasional three-ball as well. His athleticism is off the charts and makes him a terror to keep track of.
X-Factor: Josh Harrelson. The one true difference between these two teams is size. Harrelson outweighs Connecticut center Alex Oriakhi by at least 35 pounds. Although Oriakhi has Harrelson on athleticism, the Kentucky senior can use his poise, experience and body positioning to outwit and outplay the Huskies' big man. If Harrelson can crash the boards and wreak havoc on the interior, it will allow for easy points and an overall demoralization of the smaller UConn squad. If Harrelson disappears, Jones and Knight will be forced to shoulder a disproportionate burden on both ends of the floor.
Who They Beat to Get Here:
West Virginia, 71-63
Ohio State, 62-60
North Carolina, 76-69
They'll Win If: they can stop Kemba Walker. The premise seems simple, but very few teams have been able to accomplish this feat. Walker is undeniably the difference maker for the Huskies. UK will attempt to throw various defenders at Walker (DeAndre Liggins, Brandon Knight) and even double team him to force the ball out of his hands. Coach Calipari can live with the other players on UConn's roster beating him, but not Kemba. Everybody watching the game knows where the ball is going, particularly in closing time; the question will be whether the Wildcats can execute and force Kemba into contested and off-balance shots. If Walker gets hot, it could be lights out for the 'Cats.
Connecticut Huskies, West Region No. 3 seed
Backcourt: Arguably the best player left in the tournament field, Kemba Walker is a dynamic 6-1 guard from the Bronx who has dominated at times this season. There aren't enough superlatives to describe Walker's game; he's a workhorse who has the ability to score from anywhere on the court. He is quick off the dribble and finds easy buckets for his teammates as well. His running mate in the backcourt, Jeremy Lamb, has been equally important during this tournament run. The freshman is averaging 18.3 points per game during the tourney and has proven an excellent complement to Kemba. Lamb is not afraid of the spotlight and hit a couple of key buckets in the West Regional Final against Arizona. The backcourt is certainly the strength of this Huskies squad.
Frontcourt: Conversely, the frontcourt has been the Achilles' Heel of Connecticut this season, as the Huskies' big men have lacked consistency. The anchor of the frontline is center is Alex Oriakhi, who has shown flashes of brilliance, but overall has not taken the leap into stardom as many hoped. Still, despite playing out of position at 6-9, he has played decent defense and is averaging 9.5 rebounds per contest this tournament. Freshman Roscoe Smith has also played an integral role in the UConn frontcourt, playing 25 minutes per game and managing 6.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per contest. Coach Jim Calhoun also has used senior center Charles Okwandu lately as well to spell Oriakhi. Okwandu is still very raw, but at 7-0, 255, he takes up space and can block a shot or two. Still, it's not a stretch to say that the Huskies have gotten by in spite of their front line.
X-Factor: Shabazz Napier. A wiry freshman guard, Napier comes off the bench but often plays crunch time minutes for the Huskies. When Napier enters the game, it allows Kemba Walker to slide over to the two-guard slot and play off the ball. Not having the burden of bringing up the ball and distribute the ball lets Kemba roam freely off screens and find open looks. Napier is an extremely capable passer, averaging 3.0 assists per contest. Napier can score the ball as well, making him yet another versatile threat for the Huskies on the offensive end of the floor. The Huskies are most effective, and perhaps most dangerous, with both Kemba and Shabazz on the floor.
Who They Beat to Get Here:
San Diego State, 74-67
They'll Win If: they can rebound effectively. The Huskies need to keep the bruising front line of Josh Harrelson and Terrence Jones off the glass to triumph in this contest. The Huskies have been outrebounded in each of their last two contests, including getting smoked on the boards by 11 rebounds despite picking up the win against Arizona in the regional final. Second-chance points can be back-breakers, and you can only play with fire for so long. Roscoe Smith likely will draw the task of stopping Terrence Jones, and he must keep the athletic freshman in front of him and push him as far away from the hoop as possible. Losing the battle of the boards could spell doom for UConn.
The crucial matchup in this contest pits Brandon Knight and Kemba Walker against each other. Whichever point guard can control the tempo, get his teammates involved and score effectively will have an immense edge on the road to victory. Walker has been virtually unguardable during UConn's torrid run through the Big East championship and into the Final Four. Yet Knight has also shown the knack for hitting clutch shots and leading his squad to victory. While on paper Kentucky might have the more well-rounded squad, Walker will be difficult to stop in this contest, and the Huskies should hit the boards just hard enough to hold off the feisty Wildcats. Look for UConn to triumph in a hotly contested, physical battle and continue dancing on into championship game.