National Championship Game Preview and Picks: UConn Huskies vs. Kentucky Wildcats

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Traditonal powers still set up historic title bout

National Championship Game Preview and Picks: UConn Huskies vs. Kentucky Wildcats

Prepare to see history.

Whatever happens in Monday night’s national title game, either Kentucky or Connecticut will become one of the most rare champions in the NCAA Tournament.

With 11 titles between the two, the Wildcats and Huskies aren’t in a spot they’ve never been, even in the last five years. But both have taken a path to the title game that, while not unprecedented, puts each school in exclusive company.

Consider the following:

• UConn is a No. 7 seed and Kentucky is a No. 8. Either would be the lowest-seeded team to win a national championship since No. 8 Villanova upset Georgetown for the title in 1985, the first season the field expanded to 64 teams. A No. 7 seed has never reached the national title game.

• Neither team played in the NCAA Tournament a year ago. UConn was banned from the postseason due to poor academic progress. Kentucky missed the Tourney and lost to Robert Morris in the first game of the NIT.

• If UConn wins, the Huskies will have the most lopsided loss on their schedule of any national champion in NCAA history. No eventual champion lost by 30 points during the course of the season. UConn lost its regular season finale 81-48 to Louisville.

• If Kentucky wins, the Wildcats will have one of the worst losses by any eventual national champion. Kentucky lost 72-67 to South Carolina, a team ranked No. 113 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. The only other national champion in the last 10 years to lose to a lower-rated opponent was 2005 North Carolina, which lost its opener to No. 124 Santa Clara. This year’s Kentucky team has four losses to teams outside of the KenPom top 50. Four of the last 11 national champions never lost to a team outside of the top 50.

• Kentucky and UConn both went 0-3 against teams that won their respective conference tournaments. Kentucky went 0-3 against Florida while UConn went 0-3 against Louisville. Ironically, Kentucky knocked out UConn’s nemesis, Louisville, in the Sweet 16 while UConn knocked out Florida in the Final Four.

This pair in the title game, though, counts its low points as the moments that turned the season around.

Of the loss to South Carolina, coach John Calipari — who was ejected in that game, by the way — said the embarrassment and criticism that followed brought his team back together.

Since then, Kentucky lost twice, both times to No. 1 Florida.

“I just knew that we had the talent and it was just a couple of things missing,” guard Aaron Harrison said. “We trusted coach 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.”

UConn coach Kevin Ollie also called his team’s most embarrassing defeat as the wake-up call.

“I'm glad that happened because we went back and I had to evaluate myself as a coach,” Ollie said. “I hope every player went to their dorms and looked themselves in the mirror and had to evaluate their effort.”

Connecticut vs. Kentucky
Time: 9:10 p.m. Eastern
TV: CBS
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony and Steve Kerr

Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox: UConn 68-65
Braden Gall: Kentucky 74-69
Mitch Light: Kentucky 68-62
Nathan Rush: Kentucky 73-72
How UConn got here:
The Huskies have been a defensive menace. Florida and Michigan State both have sure-handed offenses, but UConn made them look out of sorts in the Final Four and the Elite Eight. The Huskies backcourt of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright have been sharp on both ends of the court.

How Kentucky got here:
None of the concentration or emotional lapses that plagued Kentucky through the regular season have taken place in this Tournament. John Calipari hasn’t had to worry about his team staying cool under pressure for weeks. It also helps that Aaron Harrison has become the most clutch performer in the Tournament.

Key matchup: Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright vs. the Harrisons
Kentucky and UConn continue to be proof that great guard play is the key to advancing in the Tournament. Before Selection Sunday, Napier already was one of the top players in the field, and he’s delivered. Just as important as his play in the offensive end, Napier caused Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin fits in the semifinal. Napier and Boatright held Florida’s point guards to 4-of-15 from the field, one assist and seven turnovers. On the other side, Aaron and Andrew Harrison have been spectacular. The semifinal game against Wisconsin wasn’t Aaron’s best, but he took a well-guarded NBA 3-pointer for the second game in a row to win the game. Will Napier and Boatright be able to disrupt Kentucky’s physical guard duo?

Player to watch: Julius Randle, Kentucky
The guards have been key for Kentucky, and the dramatics have made it all too easy to forget that Randle is the Wildcats’ most dominant player. He’s averaging  15.8 points and 10.6 rebounds in the Tournament, though Wisconsin is the only Tournament foe to keep Randle from getting a double-double. On Saturday, Florida’s Patric Young sparked the Gators in the second half against UConn’s front line. Randle is a tougher matchup.

X-Factor: DeAndre Daniels, UConn
Daniels has a versatile offensive game and is UConn’s only real threat on that end of the court. He was arguably the Huskies’ MVP in wins over Iowa State (27 points, 10 rebounds) and Florida (20 points, 10 rebounds). Daniels can drive to the basket or take the 3. He’s also a solid free-throw shooter (78.7 percent).

UConn will win the national title if...
The Huskies get to the free throw line. Saturday was the first time in the Tournament UConn didn’t get to the free throw line 20 times. The Huskies still went 10-of-13 from the line in the win over the Gators. Altogether, UConn is shooting 77.1 percent from the free throw line in the Tournament.

Kentucky will win the national title if...
The game is close. UConn can play in pressure situations. The Huskies wouldn’t be here if they couldn’t. But Kentucky thrives in close games. In this Tournament, there’s no reason for Kentucky to doubt itself in crunch time. The Wildcats were 2-8 in games decided by five points or less during the season, but they’ve won four in a row that way.

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