2014 NCAA Tournament Finals Preview: Kentucky Wildcats vs. Connecticut Huskies

Tom Pennington

It's a battle of two great basketball traditions in Arlington, Texas tonight. Who has the edge?

Just like 2011, it is the Connecticut Huskies and Kentucky Wildcats, only this time for all the marbles instead of just the right to play for them. This is a couple of basketball bluebloods, UConn a kind of Johnny-come-lately compared to Kentucky, but a powerhouse program nonetheless. It is a matchup between two vastly different styles of program, coaches, and philosophy. Huge Kentucky versus smaller UConn. Young Kentucky versus the UConn greybeards. The contrasts are endless.

Connecticut is a team under a second-year coach, having just had the Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun retire after 2012. In a way, UConn reminds me of the 1998 Kentucky Wildcats team, a team that Tubby Smith largely inherited from Rick Pitino. Kevin Ollie is in a somewhat similar position, although unlike Smith, he has had a year (a year in which UConn was ineligible for post-season play due to APR sanctions) to get his team familiar with him.

General

About UConn:

Location: Storrs Mansfield, CT

Conference: American Athletic Conference

Head Coach: Kevin Ollie (since 2012)

NCAA Appearances: # 32

Most recent NCAA appearance: 2014

Most recent NCAA win: 2014

Founded: 1881

Enrollment: 16,587

Last season's record: 20-10, 10-8

Source: Basketball State

Season so far for UConn:

Season record: 31-8, 12-6

UConn had an interesting season, beating a fair number of quality teams, including Florida, Maryland, Memphis and Cincinnati. Unfortunately, the overall weakness of the AAC made their schedule weak, and the fact that they lost twice to SMU and three times to Louisville put them in a similar position to Kentucky come Selection Sunday, even though they didn't have a season-end swoon like the Wildcats.

Series history

Surprisingly, and despite several meetings during the John Calipari era, Connecticut and Kentucky have relatively little history. The first time the teams ever met was back in 2006 when Kentucky was also seeded #8 in the tournament. The Wildcats met Rudy Gay and UConn in the second round, and lost 87-83.

The most recent meeting, of course, was in 2011, where the Wildcats and Huskies met in the Final Four. Connecticut won that game, and went on to win the NCAA Tournament as as a three seed.

Overall, Kentucky is 1-3 against the Huskies, that lone win coming in the 2009 SEC-Big East Invitational in John Calipari's first season.

Stats

UConn Roster:

# Name Status Pos Height Weight Class Hometown Previous School Games PPG RPG APG
0 Phillip Nolan S** F 6-10 212 So. Milwaukee, WI
39 3.4 2.4 0.2
2 DeAndre Daniels S** F 6-9 195 Jr. Los Angeles, CA
37 13.2 6 0.5
5 Niels Giffey S** G 6-7 205 Sr. Berlin
39 8.4 3.8 0.8
11 Ryan Boatright S** G 6-0 168 Jr. Aurora, IL
38 12.1 3.5 3.4
13 Shabazz Napier S** G 6-1 180 Sr. Roxbury, MA
39 17.9 5.8 4.9
20 Lasan Kromah MR+ G 6-6 201 Sr. Greenbelt, MD
39 6.1 2.6 1.1
21 Omar Calhoun MR* G 6-6 200 So. Brooklyn, NY
32 3.8 1.4 0.4
35 Amida Brimah MR C 7-0 217 Fr. Accra
39 4.2 3 0.3
12 Kentan Facey R F 6-9 200 Fr. Trelawny
24 1.4 1.7 0.2
10 Tyler Olander R* F 6-10 230 Sr. Mansfield, CT
33 1.8 1.2 0.1
3 Terrence Samuel R G 6-4 190 Fr. Brooklyn, NY
29 2.4 0.9 0.8
22 Leon Tolksdorf R* F 6-8 218 So. Berlin
13 1.2 0.8 0.3
14 Pat Lenehan R# G 6-3 181 Jr. Middletown, CT
8 0.5 0.4 0.1
25 Tor Watts R# G 6-1 202 Sr. Brooklyn, NY
9 0.2 0.2 0
23 Amilo, Nnamdi R# G 6-3 200 So. New Fairfield, CT
2 1 1 0
44 Rodney Purvis R- G 6-4 203 So. Raleigh, NC


















Legend










S Starter










MR Major reserve










R Reserve










* Returning player










** Returning starter










+ Eligible transfer










- Ineligible transfer










# Walk on










Source: Basketball State

Team Comparison

Rank and Records UK UCONN
RPI #5 #6
Strength of Schedule #2 #12
Overall 29-10 31-8
Conference 12-6 12-6
Home 16-2 14-3
Away 5-5 6-4
Top 25 5-6 7-4
RPI Top 50 8-6 12-7

Source: Statsheet.com

Four Factors

UConn Team Notes

  • Connecticut is a great 3-point shooting team at 39% — as a team. Michigan was better, though. Slightly.

  • Connecticut is a very poor rebounding team on both sides. That is not good for them versus Kentucky.

  • UConn is almost as good a free throw shooting team as Wisconsin was. Remember Wisconsin, who made 19 out of 20 on us?

  • The Huskies are a good offensive team, but a great defensive team.

  • Connecticut turns the ball over a lot under pressure, but overall, they handle the ball well, and have handled it very well in the post-season

  • The Huskies shoot 34% of their shots from three. Kentucky shoots 27.5% from the arc.

UConn Player notes

  • Everyone knows about Shabazz Napier, and for good reason. He is one of the most dominant point guards in the country, shoots 40% from the arc and 44% from the field. he takes the lion's share of UConn's 3-pointers, and has made 83 of them this year. Obviously, he leads UConn in scoring, but also in assists and steals.

  • Reserve forward Neils Giffey (pronounced Gif-eye) is UConn's most efficient player with an offensive rating of almost 128. He is a 48% 3-point shooter.

  • Ryan Boatright leads the team in fouls drawn per 40 minutes.

  • DeAndre Daniels shoots 43% from 3-point range and has made 50 of them this season. He is also the Huskies leading rebounder.

  • Reserve 7'0" center Amida Brimah leads the Huskies in shot blocking with over 2 blocks per game.

Injuries

Connecticut: No known injuries

Kentucky: Center Willie Cauley-Stein is out for the game with an ankle injury.

Likely matchups

Starters

  • Shabazz Napier vs. Andrew Harrison — This is exactly the kind of matchup that gives Andrew the most trouble — a small, fast point guard who can shoot the ball.

Advantage: Connecticut

  • Ryan Boatright vs. Aaron Harrison — This is a tough matchup for Aaron, but Boatright is not quite as dynamic as Napier, although he might be more disruptive defensively. Still, Andrew has been hot in this tournament, and he can get his shot anytime he wants to on Boatright.

Advantage: Kentucky

  • Neils Giffey vs. James Young — Giffey requires a lot of defensive attention, and Young has been very up and down taking care of dangerous shooters, he tends to drift too far away from them. On the other hand, Giffey is unlikely to be able to contain the longer and slightly more athletic Young.

Advantage: Draw

  • DeAndre Daniels vs. Julius Randle — The only question here is whether or not Randle can guard Daniels on the perimeter, and since he's even quicker than Daniels is, I think the answer is yes. Inside, it's a mismatch.

Advantage: Kentucky

  • Phillip Nolan vs. Dakari Johnson — Nolan is a lot better than people think, and although he's not a big offensive threat, he is capable inside. Johnson is so much bigger, though, I really don't think Nolan can do much with him on either side of the ball.

Advantage: Kentucky

Bench

UConn has a very good bench. Terrence Samuel is a big guard who's playing much better in the post-season, and he really hurt the Florida Gators. Tyler Olander is a big-bodied center who can come in and bang, and we've already mentioned Brimah's shot-blocking, although at 217 lbs. he is a stick figure next to Kentucky's big men.

Kentucky will come off the bench with the uber-athlete Alex Poythress, the shot-blocking Marcus Lee, and defensive whiz Dominique Hawkins. I think Connecticut's guards are too quick for Jarrod Polson to see much time.

Advantage: Draw

Analysis

This is an interesting matchup because Kentucky has not played a team all season that looks like UConn, except maybe Louisville. That's about the closest match that I can find, and the Wildcats were able to get past the Cardinals both times, primarily because of their size and offensive rebounding. LSU has similar-sized guards, but they also had much bigger interior players which the Huskies lack.

Connecticut is going to have to shoot the ball very well from the perimeter in this game, because getting shots inside, even on penetration, is going to be more difficult than usual because of Kentucky's length. Both Boatright and Napier are going to have to do a lot of scoring over size, and although they are plenty capable, the teams they have played so far really don't have the kind of size Kentucky does.

Where it's going to be tricky for Kentucky is avoiding turnovers. It's one thing to avoid them against a low-pressure defense like Wisconsin, but it's a horse of an entirely different color to do so against the disruptive Huskies. Kentucky is going to have to focus very tightly on taking care of the basketball, but one thing working in their favor is that they've already faced a couple of teams who play basketball this way and prevailed, although Arkansas plays similarly disruptive defense and upended the Wildcats twice this season. I would suggest, though, that that was a different team than these Wildcats.

The most problematic matchup for Kentucky is Andrew Harrison versus Shabazz Napier. Harrison has an unfortunate tendency to foul smaller men, and get into early foul trouble. For UConn, the most problematic matchup is Johnson versus Nolan. That's really tough for UConn and will force a double-team, or Johnson will get layups.

To me, this shakes out to be a very close game again. UConn has great, proven guards, and Kentucky has good guards who are getting better. The big question will be whether or not they are good enough in the face of final game pressure to overcome the tough-minded and experienced Husky back-court.

There is also the question of offensive rebounding. The Huskies have been pushed around all year, but did just enough against Florida. If they can prevent Kentucky from dominating both backboards, Kentucky might have trouble getting enough clean looks to win the game.

Finally, there is the question of fouls. Kentucky draws a lot more fouls than UConn does. If that holds true in this game, and Kentucky makes a reasonable percentage, it could be very tough for the Huskies.

It boils mostly down to size versus speed in this game, and the winner will be the team better able to be true to their identity and be successful in their weak areas.

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