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Kentucky Wildcats (E4) @ Connecticut Huskies (W3): Game Preview

This preview will be different from the others.  As far as I am concerned, things like the strength of schedule, RPI, and W/L record are now out the window.  Statistics only matter in the sense that they may point to something, but have no intrinsic meaning.  This is the Final Four, and like the Kentucky Derby, these teams all don't know that they shouldn't be here. They only know that if they win two more games, they grasp the brass ring.

The Kentucky Wildcats and Connecticut Huskies this year

Kentucky and UConn have already met, but neither team is the same team as they were in that first meeting.  At that point in the season, the Wildcats weren't even half-baked, and it showed in their ball-hogging inefficiency.  UConn, on the other hand, was something like what they are right now, a long, athletic and talented team led by a dynamic player.

Some would point to this and say it is an advantage for Kentucky, but another viewpoint is that it took all season long for Kentucky to get to the level of Connecticut.  The teams come into this game even in every meaningful way.  Both have long winning streaks, both have talented players, both are long and athletic, capable of playing at a high pace.  Both have excellent transition offenses and solid defenses.

Connecticut has overcome one of the most difficult schedules in the land, an excess of youth, and some mid-season struggles.  Kentucky has done the same.  Neither were expected to be here in the place of the Duke Blue Devils or the Ohio St. Buckeyes, respectively.  Connecticut began the season unranked, but once they were, they spent the majority of the time in the AP top 10.  Kentucky saw the top 10 a little, but mostly hung out between 10 and 15.

Coaching

Kentucky and UConn are coached by two of the best in the business in John Calipari and Jim Calhoun.  Both have similar hardscrabble backgrounds and both are beloved of their charges and emphasize toughness, discipline and execution.  Both put players in the NBA, and both recruit at the highest level they can.

Calipari is more personable, Calhoun more curmudgeonly.  Calhoun has had greater success in winning championships, Calipari has been knocking on the door for a long time.  Calhoun is nearer the end of his career, but Calipari is firmly on the backside of his, if not as near the end.  These are two experienced, dedicated, and talented coaches who develop players and produce winning seasons year after year.  Both have had to deal with NCAA problems during their careers.  They are far more alike than different.

Calhoun is known more as a bench coach and a developer of players.  Calipari is known more for recruiting better than any coach in the game.  The end result is that they both produce winners, and teams capable of winning it all.  This tournament is a testament to that fact.

The Teams

Kentucky and UConn are similar in many ways, yet unlike in almost as many. Both start up to three freshmen.  Both have some maturity to mix in with their youth, and both have more young talent than older.  Connecticut is deeper off the bench than the Wildcats, although the depth that Kentucky does have is more skilled.  Both teams like to run, but both also play very well in the half court.

Defensively, both teams are pretty much devoted to man-to-man.  Calipari has zoned a few times this year, but we have very rarely seen zone looks in the tournament, and I don't expect to see any against UConn unless Kentucky gets into foul trouble.  I have not seen Connecticut run a single possession of zone so far, and with their deeper bench, they can afford to be more aggressive defensively than Kentucky can.

Connecticut is very good at getting teams into foul difficulty with basket penetration.  Kentucky also does this, but not nearly as effectively.  What Kentucky does do effectively is get open looks off dribble penetration for three point shooters, and when UK gets open looks from three, they knock them down.

Injuries

Connecticut has no injuries or unavailable players.  Kentucky has Enes Kanter out due to NCAA disqualification.

The Matchups

  1. Kemba Walker vs. Brandon Knight -- I don't know how much Knight will actually guard Walker, but on paper the two players match up nicely.  Both are about the same size, both extremely quick and athletic, and both are very clever with the basketball.  Both Knight and Walker are scoring point guards, and both  get their points from a mix of penetration, midrange, and outside shooting.  Walker's greater experience gives him the edge.  Not many guards can get the nod over Knight, but the runner-up to the Player of the Year does.  Advantage:  Connecticut

  2. Jeremy Lamb vs. DeAndre Liggins and Doron Lamb -- Against Liggins, Jeremy Lamb is a better scorer, but he's up against a much better defender, and Liggins is the taller and heavier man.  The two Lambs match up better.  Both are the same size and can score.  This matchup is even against Doron, but Liggins has the edge when he's in.  Advantage:  Kentucky.

  3. Roscoe Smith vs. Darius Miler.  Miller is a better scorer, better passer, and about as good a rebounder as Roscoe Smith.  Smith is a freshman and Miller is a junior, and even though Smith is taller, Miller is the bigger man and can post him up.  Advantage:  Kentucky.

  4. Tyler Olander vs. Terrence Jones.  This is a significant mismatch for Kentucky.  Jones is too big, too long, too quick and too strong for Olander.  Olander cannot guard him in the post without double-teams, and double-teaming Kentucky means three-pointers are likely to fall like rain.  I suspect Charles Okwandu will have to come in early to guard Harrellson in order to allow Alex Oriakhi to check Jones, but even that is a difficult propostion.  Advantage:  Kentucky big.

  5. Alex Oriakhi vs. Josh Harrellson.  Both these men are big bodies, but Oriakhi was a Rivals 5* and is a significantly longer and more athletic player with a solid post up game.  Harrellson is just as big and will try to force Oriakhi off the blocks.  Oriakhi gets the nod, but given how Harrellson is playing, it is not much of a mismatch.  Advantage:  Connecticut.

  6. Bench.  Connecticut's bench is deeper, bigger and very skilled.  Kentucky's is even more skilled, but too short.  Advantage:  Connecticut.

Overall observations

  • Kentucky cannot get into foul trouble, particularly Harrellson and Jones.  Both have become very good at knowing when to let the play go for the good of the team, but this is always a worry.
  • The key for Connecticut is solving the Jones mismatch.  Jones can take Oriakhi off the bounce, and everyone else he can post up and dominate.  Charles Okwandu cannot guard him.
  • The key for Kentucky is how to guard the Walker-Shabazz Napier combination.  Those two were deadly against the defensive-minded Pittsburgh Panthers in the Big East Tournament.  Kentucky must figure out how to limit Napier's effectiveness, because when he is effective, Walker is devastating.
  • How well can Connecticut guard the pick-and-roll?  They are going to get a lot of practice.
  • Kentucky must be disciplined and not let UConn speed them up.  UConn must get into transition whenever they can, because that is where they are by far the most effective.
  • When UConn wins, they usually have a large offensive rebounding margin.  It is one of their strengths, and Oriakhi is the reason.  Harrellson will have to battle him to at least a draw on the offensive boards, and Jones must help.
  • Alex Oriakhi is prone to picking up early fouls.  If Kentucky can get him in foul trouble early, the Wildcats will be looking good.
  • It will be very interesting to see how Calipari utilizes Liggins.  I have no idea, but I suspect he will see time on Walker, Napier and Lamb.
  • Will the shooting background be a factor?  I don't think so, but sometimes it is.  I don't think it will be a factor in the game, though.
  • Terrence Jones is so incredibly overdue for a big game.

That's all I have, folks.  Let's enjoy every minute of the day today.  Go, 'Cats!