Three Hits: MVP Napier completes UConn's title quest
APR 08, 2014 12:02a ET
Here are three things we gleaned from Connecticut's 60-54 victory over Kentucky in the national championship game, as the Huskies became the first 7-seed in history to win the NCAA tournament.
In case you're wondering ... no 5-seed has ever won the men's NCAA crown (the modern-day seeding system launched in 1979).
1. Shabazz Napier deserves the Danny Manning Award for single-handedly carrying the Huskies to a national title
It would be extremely easy to compare Napier (22 points, six rebounds, three assists) to Kemba Walker from the 2011 championship season, given the UConn ties and point-guard association.
But for an older writer like myself, Monday's title clash had an eerie feel like 1988, when Manning's Kansas Jayhawks (a 6-seed) shocked the world by beating a superior Oklahoma team in the NCAA final -- while matching the Sooners' style of play for the first 30 minutes (50-all at halftime) ... and then holding on for dear life in the final moments.
On that night at Kemper Arena, the senior Manning tallied 31 points and 18 rebounds -- tangibly better numbers than Napier posted against Kentucky. That aside, the Huskies point guard had a similarly stellar knack for getting his sometimes-sloppy teammates over the hump.
After all, UConn shot only 42 percent from the field; and of the club's three double-digit scorers (Napier, Ryan Boatright, Niels Giffey), it's worth noting that Giffey, a long-distance specialist, didn't hit either of his two three-pointers until the under-12 mark of the second half.
Don't forget about DeAndre Daniels, either, the hot-and-cold asset who made only 4 of 14 shots for the Huskies -- a few of the "brick" variety. For whatever reason, he couldn't find any rhythm when shooting from outside.
Bottom line: If Kentucky and Connecticut played 100 times, the Wildcats probably would win 84 to 88 times -- that's how much better they seemed, pound for pound, on Monday night.
And yet, the Napier-led Huskies never relinquished the lead, absurdly holding onto advantages that never seemed in their favor during the final 22 minutes of action. (In that stretch, UConn maintained three separate one-point leads.)
That kind of luck is necessary when bringing home a championship, Connecticut's fourth title in 15 years (1999, 2004, 2011, 2014).
2. The Wildcats' shooting woes trumped perhaps their best defensive performance of the tourney
It's hard to win a title fight when shooting 39 percent from the field, 31 percent from beyond the arc and 54.2 percent from the charity stripe (13 of 24).
These are the core numbers that likely will haunt the Wildcats throughout the offseason -- no matter which players return to campus next year.
And in a way, it's unfortunate -- and somewhat ironic -- that Kentucky didn't pull out the victory. Of the club's last five games (Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan, Wisconsin, Connecticut), this might have been the Wildcats' most complete effort on the defensive end.
For example, all three of Huskies forward Phillip Nolan's field-goal attempts came from point-blank range ... and the Wildcats blocked each chance; and no Huskies big man (Nolan, Amida Brimah) scored a single point.
Plus, can anyone remember any UConn playmaker not named Napier (voted the Most Outstanding Player) getting off a clean shot inside the arc during that 24-minute span after the Huskies grabbed a 28-15 lead in the first half?
On the offensive end, Kentucky freshman Julius Randle seemingly got to the basket on every bull-rush penetration ... but ended up with only 10 points.
And James Young notched a team-high 20 points for the Wildcats ... although his major contribution involved hitting 8 of 9 free throws and throwing down a seismic in-traffic, and-one dunk with 10:40 left in the game, cutting UConn's lead to 48-42.
On the flip side, UConn buried all 10 of its free throws, including two from Lasan Kromah in the final 25 seconds. For such a hotly contested affair, it's curious the Huskies attempted only two free throws in the final 11 minutes.
3. Hopefully, not every Kentucky freshman will confuse reaching the title game with being 'ready for the pros'
Two of the most reputable mock-draft sites, NBADraft.net and Draft Express, have the following Wildcats picks in their latest drafts:
5th overall -- Julius Randle (Jazz)
27th overall -- Andrew Harrison (Heat)
29th overall -- Willie Cauley-Stein (Thunder)
35th overall -- Aaron Harrison (Jazz, Round 2)
Marcus Lee (8th overall)
Alex Poythress (32nd overall, Round 2)
Dakari Johnson (42nd overall, Round 2)
4th overall -- Randle (Jazz)
12th overall-- Cauley-Stein (Nuggets)
**Note: Kentucky's James Young doesn't appear on any of the above mocks for 2014 or '15.
Which brings us to this:
Remember two years ago, when Kentucky youngsters Anthony Davis (1st overall pick), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (2nd overall), Marquis Teague (29th overall) and Doron Lamb (42nd overall) held a group press conference to announce their pro intentions -- even though only Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist were certifiable locks for Round 1?
(Teague, who is averaging just 2.5 points per game and 9.9 minutes this season, squeaked in to Round 1, going to the Bulls at 29.)
At the core, this is what's wrong with the modern-player rationale: Yes, Lamb and Teague were integral cogs in the Wildcats' championship run of 2012 ... but that six-game experience in the NCAA tourney essentially had nothing to do with their long-term pro prospects.
And once a Kentucky player -- or any other heralded underclassman from another school -- makes the jump to the pros, they're completely on their own, in terms of making a team and surviving for multiple seasons.
In the (sometimes) cold-hearted, results-oriented NBA, rank-and-file players -- especially ones below 7 feet tall -- are eminently replaceable assets.
Upon reflection, Teague and Lamb might have been better served staying in Lexington for at least another season, demonstrating their capacity for carrying a college team -- instead of simply handling a secondary role on a championship club.
Bottom line: It makes for a great photo op, seeing a wave of teammates together one last time before turning pro. But it's also a fruitless venture for those who fall short of a guaranteed contract from Round 1 -- like the 22-year-old Lamb, who is averaging fewer than 4 points per game for the Magic.
And yet, that point could go largely dismissed if this year's crop of Kentucky stars feels obligated to turn pro together ... thinking they've accomplished most of their collegiate goals.
They'd also be ignoring how scouts and general managers would have little trouble dissecting their flaws for the next level.