ARLINGTON, Texas -- Kentucky’s ridiculous run to Monday’s national championship game against UConn seemed probable and even likely last summer. Then, John Calipari had an unprecedented number of McDonald’s All-Americans and NBA prospects in the same freshman class. Add them to returning sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein and a lengthy stay in the Big Dance seemed possible.
But the Wildcats took five months to finally achieve this lofty potential. They knocked off Kansas State, Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin to secure a slot in the national title game. Now the same Wildcats who lost to Arkansas and South Carolina toward the end of the SEC season have found a rhythm at the most crucial juncture of the season.
“I just knew that we had the talent and it was just a couple of things missing,” Aaron Harrison said Sunday. “We trusted Coach [Calipari] and he just put it all together for us. We just went out there and just started fighting and playing harder and playing for each other. I think that was the biggest thing.”
The Huskies are a team full of solid defenders who can create chaos for opposing players. Shabazz Napier will be the best player on the floor, too. But the Wildcats have the length, overall talent and depth to win their second national title in three seasons and ninth overall.
The path to victory
For months, Florida had been the best team in America. Until it met UConn Saturday for the second time this season. Napier didn’t score a point for the first 10 minutes of the game. And the Gators had a 16-4 lead early.
But then the Huskies ruined the Gators. Napier and Ryan Boatright harassed Scottie Wilbekin (2-of-9 shooting, three turnovers). They were physical inside and DeAndre Daniels (20 points, 10 rebounds) was a monster.
That trio is the key to the national title game.
Kentucky has to corral Napier. That’s the first step. He has done a great job of getting to the free throw line, creating shots inside of the arc and hitting 3-pointers. Florida did a good job of containing Napier early. But the Gators failed to protect the rim.
The Wildcats won’t have that problem. Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison are big guards who have the agility and athleticism to stick Napier and disrupt UConn’s offense. And Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and Poythress will contest every shot at the rim. The Wildcats won’t let Boatright and Napier penetrate the way they did against the Gators on Saturday.
And their length will frustrate Daniels, too. If Kentucky can limit the effectiveness of those three players, beginning with Napier, it will be in a good position to win in the end.
But the Wildcats are also a matchup nightmare for a UConn team that will struggle with their size and brawn. Johnson and Randle will just keep attacking until they get to the rim and/or foul line.
Louisville defeated Connecticut three times by a combined 55 points this season. Sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell had a double-double in each game.
Plus the Harrison twins and James Young are potent in transition. When the Wildcats run, they can score in impressive flurries.
“First of all, we want to get back in transition,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said Sunday. “That’s our No. 1 key every game, especially [with] them. They got a lot of great athletes. They use their quickness, their speed, their jumping ability to get inside the paint. So we want to locate, want to get back, want to keep them in front of us, and then play solid defense. We want to limit the penetration and make them shoot over the top.”
Monday’s title game will be played above the rim on both ends of the floor. Kentucky will penetrate and get easy buckets inside, while denying UConn similar opportunities with its defense.
The Wildcats have been in battles for the past three weeks. But they’ve survived them all. The Huskies can pressure backcourts and stop offenses from flowing. They can get hot from the 3-point line. Plus, Napier has been a master at getting to the free throw line, and he rarely misses when he gets there (86.9 percent this season).
The Wildcats, however, continue to overwhelm veteran, balanced units. They’ve faced adversity in every game they’ve played in the NCAA tournament. Yet they’ve prevailed in every situation.
Randle can get a bucket when he wants. Johnson cleans up behind him. Lee is the perfect energy guy who can give Calipari 10-15 solid minutes. Young is a playmaker. The Harrisons are the anchors now.
They’re difficult to defend in zone defense because they’re so athletic, quick and big inside. They’re difficult to guard man-to-man for the same reasons.
The Huskies have been impressive throughout this magical run to the national title game.
The Wildcats, however, are just on a different level. That’s why they’ll win.