Someone is going to make history Monday night when Kentucky and Connecticut meet in for the NCAA basketball championship, as either the No. 8-seed Wildcats or No. 7-seed Huskies will become the lowest-seeded team to win an NCAA title since Villanova did it as an eight seed in 1985.
The teams will bring contrasting styles to AT&T Stadium, with UConn relying on veteran leadership and tough defense to win, while Kentucky will hope its abundant individual skill will trump Connecticut’s sum-of-its-parts approach.
Each school has won a title in recent years — Kentucky two years ago and UConn the season before that — and either could cut down the nets on Monday, but here are four reasons to believe Connecticut could leave this year’s Final Four as champions:
All season long, UConn has ranked among the top defenses in the country, and they’ve been equally stifling through five games in the NCAA Tournament. After allowing St. Joseph’s to shoot 50 percent in the first round, the Huskies have held three of their last four opponents under 40 percent shooting, and they’re especially active on defense inside the 3-point arc, where opponents have shot just 42.2 percent for the year, good for eighth-lowest in the country. The Huskies can be a little susceptible to the 3-point shot, which isn’t exactly ideal against a Kentucky team that is only in the championship game as a result of its clutch long-distance shooting, and they’re much better in the half-court than they are in transition. But if UConn plays as well on D as it did against Florida in the national semifinal, the game won’t come down to the wire, anyway.
SHABAZZ NAPIER LEADS THE WAY
When UConn last won a national championship, in 2011, it had Shabazz Napier in the backcourt, learning the ropes behind Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb. Napier struggled some in the spotlight that year, shooting just 10-of-35 in the NCAA Tournament and 2-of-13 in the Final Four, but there’s no fear that the moment will be too big for the senior All-America selection this time around. Napier is Connecticut’s leader in points, rebounds and assists per game and has shown a propensity for putting the whole team on his back, as he did in UConn’s wins over Villanova and Michigan State earlier in the tournament. Connecticut is capable of winning when Napier isn’t shouldering the load — he took a backseat to DeAndre Daniels on Saturday against Florida — but on Monday, with a national championship on the line in his final college game, expect Napier to be at his best. It remains to be seen whether the veteran leadership of the country’s top guard will be enough to tackle Kentucky’s gang of elite one-and-done stars, but you’d certainly rather have a guy like Napier in a game like this than not.
A TEAM WITH NOTHING TO LOSE
Let’s be honest, no one expected Connecticut to be here, and unlike their opponent in Monday’s championship game, they didn’t enter the season with elevated expectations, either — regardless of what coach Kevin Ollie says. A month ago, UConn was reeling after a 33-point loss to Louisville, and most wrote the Huskies off then and there. But in the eight games since, UConn has played like a team looking to play the role of spoiler, and they’ve done just that to a 2-seed, 3-seed, 4-seed and 1-seed in the last four games, respectively. It’s a role that fits them well, and one that could serve them well against a Kentucky team that is certainly better than its seeding. Sure, UConn fans are used to winning championships, as they should be after three in 15 years, but no one expected UConn basketball to be where it is so soon after the departure of Jim Calhoun, and though a loss would be disappointing, it would feel more like an inevitable end than a huge letdown. That might come off as a criticism, but it’s quite the opposite, as it may allow UConn to play much more freely than a Kentucky team looking to live up to high preseason hopes.
It’s a boring stat, but the Huskies are one of the best free-throw shooting teams in the country, and that skill could prove invaluable in a high-pressure championship game. UConn has hit 77.4 percent of its attempts from the charity stripe this season, good for fifth nationally, and is 91 for 105 (85.7 percent) so far in the tournament, with 90-percent, 20-attempt games against St. Joseph’s (18-of-20), Iowa State (20-of-22) and Michigan State (21-of-22). Kentucky, meanwhile, is shooting 62.5 percent from the line in its last two games (20-of-32), and hasn’t been much better for the season, with a 68.4 percent mark that puts the ‘Cats 226th in Division I. UConn’s edge at the stripe will serve the Huskies well if they’re holding a close lead late and Kentucky starts playing the foul game, and it should help them make up a few points over the course of the game. It may not, in and of itself, be enough to give them the win, but in such a high-stakes game, any edge helps.