There's a double standard to the awesomeness of tonight's national championship game. On the surface, both of these teams came into the NCAA tournament as underdogs, and have been perceived as such up to this point. Both teams had to endure adversity and most did not expect them to be here, but these two teams are no longer underdogs, because as of today, they are the two best teams in the country. Did I predict the Kentucky freshman to string together this fearless streak of maturity? No. Did I foresee the Huskies making this rally? No. But for me, more gratifying than being right about any prediction is the assurance that I will be watching the two most confident, deserving teams play for the national title.
What Kansas State, Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan, and Wisconsin were unable to do was rattle the Kentucky freshman. Rarely if at all have we seen the young Wildcats panic into forced errors and poor decision making during the tournament. UConn's guards are small, quick, and harder to beat off the dribble, which creates a good challenge for the Harrison twins to maintain necessary aggressiveness and poise in their attack from the perimeter.
Kentucky's advantage stems from their length, athleticism, and presence on the glass. Their best chance of making UConn uncomfortable is by duplicating Florida's first ten minutes of play against the Huskies in the Elite Eight: relentless hedging and recovering on ball screens with Napier plus imposing on the glass and in the paint.
Kevin Ollie has squared off against Phil Martelli, Jay Wright, Fred Hoiberg, Tom Izzo, and Billy Donovan in his first NCAA Tournament as a head coach. I think he truly made his mark on this tournament against Florida. Against the immense size and length of the Gators, Ollie's adjustment for his initially struggling squad was a three-guard line-up with Napier/Boatright/Samuels, which became essentially a five-guard unit when he added DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey to that mix, opening up the floor offensively and helping his team gain the edge they needed. Ollie seems to have mastered his team's match up advantages. I expect Julius Randle to defend many, many ball screens tonight.
John Calipari is no stranger to this moment, and you have to assume that his experiential element is the driving engine behind what we're seeing with his team. Despite a spotty regular season, Calipari never gave up on his guys, and now they've learned to exhibit that same mentality together on the floor. Cal has found his unsung heroes in Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson, and Marcus Lee, who came up huge for the Wildcats in the absence of Willie Cauley-Stein against Michigan. He finally has his players' undivided attention and they're responding with willingness and selflessness.
Every coach talks about it because it applies to every game. Both teams need to have players make winning plays: diving for loose balls, making extra efforts on the glass and on defense, playing smart, confident, and aggressive on offense, sprinting in transition, getting to the free throw line, taking charges, etc. The wonderful thing about making impactful, winning plays is they can be made by any player at any juncture in the game. Whoever is crowned national champion after tonight will have had more players make more winning plays than the other team.
What makes it painfully difficult to pick a winner in this game is exactly what brought these two teams to this point: resilience. Both teams have shown it and clung to it fiercely in the tournament. Both teams have a gritty fight about them when they fall behind, so neither pick feels too trustworthy. Even though I think Kentucky has shown to be more versatile in terms of their weapons, I'm going with my gut on the UConn Huskies to win tonight with their stifling defense and free throw shooting down the stretch.
SCORE: UConn 62, Kentucky 59
- Martin S (@marley_mcfly)