The Kentucky Wildcats enter the Final Four winners of ten strait, including an SEC Tournament Championship. The Connecticut Huskies enter the National Semifinals winners of nine strait, including a remarkable Big East Tournament Championship run that included five wins in five days at Madison Square Garden. This is a UConn team that has nine wins in 18 days.
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On Saturday night, one of these teams’ winning streaks will come to an end while the other will be an overwhelming favorite to win the National Championship.
When these two teams met in November in Hawaii, experts didn’t know what to expect about either of them. Kentucky was coming off of a Elite Eight run, but saw five of their players drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft following the season. John Calipari had refueled with three more McDonald’s All-Americans, but few expected this version of the Wildcats to be as successful as the season prior.
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The Huskies on the other hand were coming off of a very rough season. The troubles surrounding Jim Calhoun and the program were well publicized and they compounded those issues by struggling on the basketball court and missing the NCAA Tournament.
Here’s what I had to say about Connecticut in my Maui Invitational preview. Oh, and I had Wichita State beating them in the first round. It was a close one, as UConn downed the Shockers, 83-79. Kemba Walker scored 29 of his 31 points in the second half against Wichita State and hit a key jumper with under a minute left to clinch the win. It was a sign of things to come for Kemba and the Huskies.
It was an up-and-down season for Connecticut, that unfortunately saw more downs than ups. The Huskies had talent and that talent was evident in wins over Texas and West Virginia. But, they lost way too many games to the bottom half of the Big East, which cost them any hope of making the Big Dance. They ended their season with a second round loss to Virginia Tech in the N.I.T.
They lose Stanley Roberts and Jerome Dyson from a year ago, but return super-quick Kemba Walker and a add core of young guys that hope to get the Huskies back into the NCAA Tournament.
In their last game, a 89-73 win over Vermont, Walker put up a career-high 42 points, shooting 15-for-24 from the floor. He fills the box every night and is coming off of a season that saw him average 14.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 2.1 steals and 2.9 turnovers.
This year there is no denying that this is Walker’s team and that, combined with their improved bigs underneath, could provide them with the consistently that they lacked last year. Alex Oriahki is their best big underneath and he was the only other starter to finish in double figures in the Vermont game, as he had 11. Also, look for freshman Roscoe Parrish to provide them with some inside presence.
I wasn’t predicting anything when I said that this was going to be Walker’s team. It was well-known by anyone who follows college basketball even remotely. But, no one really expected him to explode on the scene like this during his junior season. He went from 14 points-per-game to National Player of the Year candidate in putting up what could be regarded as one of the best individual seasons in Connecticut history. If the Huskies find a way to win two more games, then you can go ahead and mark Walker’s season as the single best season in Huskie history. And we’re talking about a program that has a ton of history.
On the season, he is averaging 23.9 points-per-game, which is more than double their second leading scorer. He also leads the team with 74 threes made on the year and shoots 34-percent from deep. He is nearly automatic at the line, shooting 82-percent, and that is a big plus to his game because he gets there a ton. On the year he has shot 302 free throws. He also leads the team in assists with 4.5 per-game and his assist-to-turnover ratio is a rather impressive 2-to-1.
In the NCAA Tournament, he has been even more lights out. Check out these numbers. He is averaging 29.0 points-per-game in their four NCAA tourney games and has scored 69 in their last two contests. He is shooting 28-for-30 from the free throw line, played in 114 of 120 minutes and has scored or assisted on 45 of UConn’s 78 made field goals.
What makes Kemba Walker (6-1, 172) so special? His willingness to do absolutely anything it takes to put his team in position to win the game. The kid is a natural born leader and has exemplified that the entire season. He is as an explosive a scorer as there is in college basketball. But, he does so much more than score. He is a fine distributor of the basketball and knows how to find others when defenses throw more than one man at him. At 6’1″, he is also a very effective rebounder for his size as he pulls in 5.3 a game.
How do you defend Kemba Walker? Well, it’s not easy. In the open court you are pretty much done. In the half court, you have a little bit of a chance, not much, but a little chance. Teams that have had the best success in guarding him have trapped him when he gets the ball on the wing, forcing him to pass the ball. When he comes off of pick and rolls, you have to trap him. Try to wear him out physically by playing full-court.
Deny him the basketball when he plays off the rock. Point blank, bad things happen when he has the ball in his hands as he has the ability to free up shots for both himself and teammates. The fewer good looks he gets the better.
Kemba Walker is going to get his points. Only 12 times this season was he held under 20 points and he failed to reach double-figures just once. He’s going to score. The challenge for UK’s defense, in particular Deandre Liggins, is to make every shot he takes a challenged shot. Force him into shooting a low percentage. If he puts up 26 points, but shoots 8-for-23 from the field, you can handle that.
In Maui, you saw Liggins, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb all get an opportunity to guard Walker. None of which were successful as he put up 29 points on 10-for-29 shooting. In the loss, UK defenders struggled fighting through screens and far too many times just let him go.
But, defensively this is a different Kentucky team. They know how to guard and how to fight through screens. I think they will still switch guys on Walker, but you will see Liggins on him the majority of the time. And Liggins is the best of the bunch because he is long, quick, and doesn’t mind contact. He will fight his way over top of screens, keeping Walker from getting open looks.
Liggins and the Wildcats will not hold Walker to eight points. That just isn’t going to happen. But, what they can do is make him work hard for every shot he gets. If he has to work hard for looks all game, consistently shoots it with a hand in his face, and still puts up 30, you just bow your head in awe. But, you have to make him work for it and I believe that Liggins may be the best guy in the country to do that.
From January 29th to March 5th, this UConn team was just 4-7. In fact, they lost four of five entering Big East Conference Tournament play.
Kemba Walker has pretty much been a constant all season long so what is the major difference in the Huskies’ recent run of nine strait wins since their loss to Notre Dame on March 5th?
The emergence of freshmen Jeremy Lamb (6-5, 185), Roscoe Smith (6-8, 205), and Shabazz Napier (6-0, 170).
Lamb’s emergence has probably played the biggest role in their improved play as he has provided them with a true number two option. He is second on the team in scoring with 11.1 and percentage-wise he is their best three-point threat at 37-percent. He has knocked down 45 threes, which is third on the team. But, the key stat is his nine strait double figure games and his 16.0 point average during that stint.
His matchup with Darius Miller could play a vital role in the game on Saturday. If Miller and the UK defense can hold Lamb to under ten points, I think the Huskies will have a tough time scoring. But, if he gets to 18 or 20, then UConn will be tough to beat. The reason? More than likely, Kemba is going to get his. But, the Huskies need production from somewhere else to get the win and Lamb is the most likely source.
Lamb’s late emergence even led to Kemba Walker advising Jim Calhoun to run a play for him in clutch time in the win over Arizona. And he came through.
Both, Napier and Smith are much more mature than they were earlier in the season. Napier is their point guard of the future and is the team’s fourth leading scorer with 8.0 points. He is second on the team in threes made with 46, shoots 34-percent from deep and is second on the team in assists with 3.0.
Smith is averaging 6.5 points and 5.2 rebounds and provides the Huskies with the size they lacked a year ago.
Also providing size for UConn is sophomore Alex Oriakhi (6-9, 240). Oriakhi has ten double-doubles on the year, one of which came against UK in the Maui final, and is averaging 9.6 points and 8.6 rebounds on the year. He has been a consistent scorer throughout the season, but another reason for their nine-game winning streak is his renewed focus towards rebounding.
In the first matchup, Oriakhi caused them problems because UK didn’t really have anyone to match up with him. But, now with Josh Harrellson playing like a future NBA draft pick, that advantage looks like it may shift towards Kentucky.
Speaking of rebounding, this UConn team is very good at cleaning the glass. They ranked second in the Big East with 43.0 rebounds–per-game, trailing only Pittsburgh, who always ranks among the nation’s best.
Last week, the Wildcats rebounded toe-to-toe with North Carolina, who entered the game as the best rebounding team on the country. If they can duplicate that effort they will be well on their way to the National Championship game.
This is going to be a tough one and once you advance this far in the tournament you shouldn’t expect anything less.
Jim Calhoun’s squad dances to the Final Four loaded with confidence and why wouldn’t they? We are talking about a team that is 12-0 in tournament play this season. Out of tournament play, they are just 18-9. This is a rugid team that comes at you with a extreme tenacity. Remember, to get to Houston they had to beat both San Diego State and Arizona in Anaheim, where the crowd advantage went to their opponent both games.
Still, I think athletically and defensively that UK is the better team of the bunch. Meaning that if they play like they have the last two contests, there is no reason why they shouldn’t advance to their first National Title game since 1998.
If they defend Walker and make him work his tail off for every shot, rebound, and continue to shoot the three well, they win this thing. It’s going to be a low scoring affair, but that bodes well for the ‘Cats, as they are 47-0 under John Calipari when their opponent scores less than 68 points.
Plus, I think that Brandon Knight is on an absolute mission. The kid is special.
Kentucky 67, Connecticut 62