CONNECTICUT vs. KENTUCKY
Matchup: This must be why they call it March Madness. In 2014, the national champion will not be a No. 1 seed. That has only happened once in the last eight years -- in 2011, when third-seeded UConn took home the title behind the outstanding play of Kemba Walker. Could history be repeating itself for Connecticut?
When the tournament began, few (no one?) envisioned a championship game between these two squads. This contest will be a clash of styles. The Huskies are a physical squad that has gotten to this stage with tenacious defense. Meanwhile, the Wildcats have outgunned high-octane offenses en route to this spot. Coaching decisions could prove vital, as UConn's youthful Kevin Ollie goes up against a coaching giant in Kentucky's John Calipari.
Connecticut outplayed Florida's frontcourt, but Kentucky is big at every position. Against a similarly sized Louisville, the Wildcats' size proved hard to counter. If the Huskies can penetrate and hit three-pointers, they could pull what appears to be another upset against an SEC team. The most important matchup, though, may be someone guarding Kentucky's Aaron Harrison at the end of the game. The freshman guard has hit ridiculously clutch three-pointers against Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin.
No. 8 Connecticut Huskies
Strength: Backcourt and defense. The Huskies have played grind-out basketball in wins over Michigan State and Florida, suffocating the opposition with pressure and causing turnovers. Ryan Boatright shut down Scottie Wilbekin in the national semifinal, while Shabazz Napier played the passing lanes exceptionally well. Defense led to offense on numerous occasions for the Huskies, as Napier stole four passes. The Gators scored a season-low 53 points Saturday, and much of the credit goes to the UConn defense. Meanwhile, after a rough offensive start, Napier dominated the ball with precision passes and stellar shooting. Napier has been the catalyst for the Huskies all tournament and has undoubtedly been the best player in this year's tourney.
Weakness: Depth. The frontcourt was viewed as a weakness heading into the tournament, but has played extremely well during March Madness. In particular, the growth of DeAndre Daniels has elevated the Huskies to new heights as a squad. Daniels notched a double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds against the Gators. However, centers Amidah Brimah and Phillip Nolan are both merely big bodies, and forward Neils Giffey has been unable to find his shot from three-point range. The Huskies have gotten this far mostly on defense and the play of the three-headed monster of Napier, Boatright and Daniels. Terrence Samuel has provided a few timely hoops, but the Huskies could have issues if one of their three stars get into foul trouble.
Intangibles: Free-throws and experience. Napier has been on this stage before. As a freshman, he was the sixth man on the national championship team led by Kemba Walker. Now a senior, Napier has emerged as a star of his own, and he has clearly shown he is not afraid of the spotlight. He is talented and battle tested. The foul line has been a huge plus for the Huskies as well. Connecticut hit 20-of-22 free-throws against Iowa State, then 21-of-22 against Michigan State. Against the Gators, the Huskies were "only" 10-of-13, but didn't even need to get to the line at the end of the game in the 10-point victory. The fact that down the stretch, under pressure, the Huskies can ice the game, could prove invaluable in their quest for yet another crown.
Connecticut Will Win If: the Huskies can rebound effectively. UConn took on the task of outrebounding the Gators, but Patric Young was the tallest player for Florida at 6-foot-9. The opposition will be much bigger in the championship, and the Huskies have been up and down rebounding the basketball in the Big Dance. Daniels needs to continue his strong play on the glass, and the presence of Brimah, who did not play much against the Gators, could be crucial. It is worth noting that both starting guards for the Huskies, Boatright and Napier, are exceptional rebounders for their size. In the semifinal win over Florida, the 6-0 Boatright snatched six boards, while Napier chipped in three. Shabazz led the squad in rebounding during the regular season and needs to help his bigs out on the glass in this contest as well.
-- Jesse Siegel
No. 7 Kentucky Wildcats
Strength: Size. The Wildcats will have size advantages at every position on the court. Even if Willie Cauley-Stein (ankle) can't play, the Wildcats have 7-0 freshman Dakari Johnson to handle the paint. The Harrison brothers are each 6-5 and have bought into the Calipari system in which perimeter defense is key. Kentucky's contingent of wings and power forwards, including James Young, potential top-5 pick Julius Randle and Andrew Poythress each bring plenty of height to their position. Even when UConn believes it has an open shot, there may be a Wildcat hand in the picture.
Weakness: Outside shooting. In the wins over Wichita State and Michigan, the Wildcats were uncharacteristically accurate from long range (a combined 15-of-29, 51.7 percent). Until the final moments of the win over the Badgers, Kentucky did not even bother to attempt a three-pointer in the second half. This may be a good plan to stick with against Connecticut. The team hit just 33.3 percent of its three-pointers this season (as well as 68.2 percent from the line). The Harrisons love to drive to the basket, and the team is excellent on the offensive boards, so it may not need to shoot much from the perimeter (which would negate that weakness).
Intangibles: Coaching experience did not seem to matter in the Final Four as UConn's Ollie knocked out two-time champion Billy Donovan of Florida. Calipari has made three Final Fours at Kentucky in the last four years. The 2012 team was more cohesive and more talented than this year's edition, but tournament coaching could come into play. Unlike Florida, Kentucky will likely not to try to trap the Huskies, but Calipari can deploy a number of large, defensive players to harass Shabazz Napier.
Kentucky Will Win If: Harrison has the ball in his hands at the end of the game. If the Wildcats can add a few three-pointers from Young, they could loosen the surprisingly excellent UConn defense. Kentucky should clean the boards and the Harrison likely will continue to attack the rim. Defensively, the Wildcats' size and activity on the perimeter should allow them to stick with a man defense, so that Connecticut will really have to work for open shots. Kentucky is not particularly deep, particularly at center, but as long as they stay out of foul trouble, they should win.
-- Perry Missner
Siegel: It's tough not to make the Kemba Walker comparisons with Napier, but the latter has led the Huskies on another improbable run to the championship game. The Huskies are vying for their fourth title since 1999. Is this a team of destiny? It sure feels that way. The Huskies nearly lost in the opening round to St. Joseph's, yet here they stand on the precipice of yet another national championship. Ollie has done a masterful job in his first NCAA Tournament, mixing emotional motivational speeches with ingenious in-game maneuvers. The decision to go small against the Gators in the first half of Saturday's game completely changed the course of that contest. There's no doubt he has leaned on his mentor, former UConn coach Jim Calhoun, for some guidance throughout this amazing run. It won't be easy, but Napier should will the Huskies to the championship.
Missner: I have overrated size and experience in nearly every round of the tournament. The Huskies do not have size, and the Wildcats do not have experience. There are all kinds of match up problems for the Huskies, who will likely pack the paint and hope the Wildcats settle for outside shots. If Kentucky plays into this plan, UConn will have a shot for their second championship in Napier's tenure. If the Wildcats attack the basket like they did against the Badgers, they should be able to win.