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The amount of people in the world that predicted this championship matchup is extremely small. Parity in college basketball seems to increase every year, and having a No. 7 play a No. 8 in the National Championship game is a bit crazy. However, when looking at the teams, these aren't your typical 7 and 8 seeds. This is Connecticut and Kentucky, champions from 2011 and 2012, respectively. For the fifth straight game, the Huskies are underdogs with the Wildcats opening as -2 point favorites.
Seeing Kentucky in this game isn't a huge surprise, as they were the No. 1 preseason team and had some great freshmen joining their team. Despite a mostly rough season, the Wildcats finally figured things out in the SEC tournament and are playing like they were expected to, although winning by the slimmest of margins. Kentucky's five tourney wins have been by a combined 18 points.
Surprisingly, Connecticut hasn't been the one that has needed late-game heroics. Outside of that opening game against St. Joseph's that went to overtime, things have been pretty straight forward for the Huskies, being ahead by decent margins in their last four games. The St. Joe's game seems so long ago when the Huskies needed an Amida Brimah three-point play to tie the game and a Langston Galloway miss in the final seconds. They were so close to losing in that first game, yet have now gone through two of the bigger favorites in the tournament, Michigan State and Florida.
Connecticut was supposed to be a good team entering the year, but not championship good. They were ranked throughout the season, but after losing by 33 points to Louisville back in March, this did not look like a team with much promise. Instead, Kevin Ollie has his squad rolling and they are playing great basketball.
The same can be said about Kentucky even with block master Willie Cauley-Stein out for the majority of the last three games. The Wildcats have won games due to their size and ability to crash the offensive glass. Connecticut has used great defense and a suddenly efficient offense to control opponents.
Starting down low, the main objective for Connecticut will be to stop Julius Randle. That task goes to the lanky DeAndre Daniels, who has played great thus far in the tournament on both ends of the ball. Randle is more of a bulldozer, but the length of Daniels could still be a problem. At the other spot, Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress will get Phillip Nolan and Amida Brimah. The fact that Kentucky is one of the best rebounding teams in the nation comes into play right here. Even though the Badgers are a great defensive rebounding team, UK still got 11 offensive boards in the Final 4 game, which killed them. Johnson and Poythress bring two different types of games that can cause problems.
At the 3-spot, Niels Giffey will be matched up with James Young. Giffey is a solid player, but often a weakness for the Huskies and going against Young, a guy that can shoot and drive, could be a big factor here. Casey Prather exploited that match up for the Gators and went for 15 points.
The backcourt may be the most interesting battle with Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright going against the studded freshman twins, Aaron and Andrew Harrison. A main reason for Connecticut's success has been their ability to shut down opposing guards. This includes Keith Appling and Scottie Wilbekin in their last two games. Wilbekin finished with four points, one rebound and one assist in their Final 4 matchup.
The difference in this game is that Kentucky doesn't really rely on its three-point shooting, although it has been kind to them in the tounre. They only attempted five last game, and while Florida isn't long ball heavy either, the Wildcats have a better paint presence with Randle and company. The strength of the Huskies down low has been a major question all tournament, but it hasn't really caught up with them yet. This may be the game to do that.
However, what will the Connecticut backcourt be able to do going against the lengthy perimeter defense of the Wildcats? Not many guards can deal with the 6-6 size of the Harrison twins and Young. These aren't your normal guards, though, as Napier and Boatright have shown numerous times.
Kentucky is going to force the ball down low and try and use their offensive rebounding to win, much like they've done all tourney long. The Wildcats have had a problem with turnovers all season long, but only gave it up four times against Wisconsin. If they keep the turnovers in check, that will be huge.
Connecticut can't get destroyed on the glass, or they'll be required to force turnovers. Daniels is going to be a matchup problem and the loss of Cauley-Stein may begin to show its face when Boatright and Napier take it to the hole. Like Kentucky's previous games, this is going to be a fun, back-and-forth battle that will be decided late. If UConn isn't rebounding well, Kentucky has the edge, but then again, the Huskies still have Shabazz Napier. Of course, Aaron Harrison has been just as good in the closing seconds.
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