Kentucky/Connecticut Preview: Your Commentary
How they got here
Kentucky (East Region champions)
W 59-57 over (13) Princeton
W 71-63 over (5) West Virginia
W 62-60 over (1) Ohio State
W 76-69 over (2) North Carolina
Connecticut (West Region champions)
W 81-52 over (14) Bucknell
W 69-58 over (6) Cincinnati
W 74-67 over (2) San Diego State
W 65-63 over (5) Arizona
The champions of the SEC and Big East tournaments meet in the second semifinal, with Kentucky looking to extend their 10-game win streak while UConn has won nine straight. Yes the two teams met in the title game of the Maui Invitational (an 84-67 UConn win on November 24th), but that game really doesn't exist when it comes to figuring out what may happen on Saturday night. The two teams are that different. John Calipari's received increased production and leadership from his upperclassmen, and the youngsters have stepped up to aid UConn head coach Jim Calhoun and star guard Kemba Walker.
The Huskies' run, winning nine games in 19 days, has been an unprecedented one made possible not just by the excellence of Walker but also the play of Jeremy Lamb. The freshman more than a few overlooked back in October has blossomed over the last month, averaging 18.3 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. Lamb's scored in double figures in each of the last nine games, and late in the win over Arizona it was he the Huskies ran off of baseline picks instead of Walker for a pair of key baskets. Classmate Shabazz Napier (8.0 ppg, 3.0 apg) offers Walker the chance to rest on the offensive end by playing off the ball, and Napier can knock down shots as well.
Up front Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith are two of the players UConn will call on Saturday night, with the former leading the team in rebounding on the season. Oriakhi's grabbed double-digit rebounds in the first two NCAA Tournament games and will need to be a factor on the glass if UConn is to win on Saturday. Oriakhi also averages just under 10 points per game, and he'll need to finish inside while dealing with Josh Harrellson and Terrence Jones. Smith allows UConn to play small with him at the four in spurts when Tyler Olander and Charles Okwandu don't enjoy beneficial matchups.
As for the Wildcats, they essentially go six deep with Eloy Vargas being the seventh who could see action in this contest. Their effectiveness has been affected by the play of their three upperclassmen, who stepped into the role of leaders following that loss at Ole Miss on February 1st. Harrellson, affectionately named "Jorts" by the fan base, averages a team-best 8.8 rebounds while also scoring around eight points per game. The Wildcats will use Harrellson in ways outside of banging in the paint, and how UConn deals with this will have a lot to do with the outcome.
Harrellson can be used not only in ball screens but also in handoff situations, where he can either give the ball to a perimeter player while effectively setting a screen or fake the handoff. Once the fake happens the senior becomes a threat to turn and go to the basket, something he's been able to do throughout the current run. This level of contribution is a far cry from what was expected of the Missouri native upon arrival in Lexington, which is a credit to his hard work.
DeAndre Liggins may end up being the most important player on the floor for Kentucky due to his defensive ability, and he's been a solid contributor offensively as well. Averaging 8.8 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, Liggins is also one of the best defenders in America and stands to see quite a bit of Walker. Liggins averaged 13.5 points and 3.5 assists per game in Newark last week while also pestering both Ohio State and North Carolina defensively.
"You have a 6'6" player with long arms who can guard a point guard, a two-man, a three-man, and if I wanted him to, he could probably guard the four," remarked Coach Calipari when asked about Liggins. "Whoever is hurting you, he can go guard."
Darius Miller rounds out the upperclassmen trio (Vargas is a JUCO transfer in his first season at Kentucky), and when aggressive offensively Kentucky as a whole becomes a better team. MVP of the SEC Tournament, Miller averages 11.1 points per game on the season and shoots 48.5% from the field and 44.9% from three. Before scoring 10 points combined in wins over West Virginia and Ohio State the junior from Maysville, Kentucky reached double figures in 10 straight games. If not for his 17 against Princeton there's a good chance that Kentucky is at home instead of Houston this weekend.
There's also no mistaking the impact of the three freshmen, Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb. Knight runs the show at the point while also leading UK in scoring with an average of 17.3 points per game (4.2 assists/game as well). Simply put, Knight is a winner. He didn't make a single field goal going into the final seconds of the Princeton game but was still the option Coach Calipari chose, and Knight responded by making the game-winning basket. He's alternated poor shooting games with outstanding performances in the tournament, and if form holds it could be a long night for Knight (22 pts against UNC). But don't bet against him when it comes to making winning plays down the stretch.
"Brandon didn't have his best game against us, but I definitely expect him to have a better game," said Oriakhi. "He's definitely the leader for that team. He's been making clutch plays for them and has gotten them this far."
Jones is as gifted as any frontcourt player you'll find, averaging 15.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game on the season. His scoring numbers may be down in the NCAA Tournament (high of 12 came against WVU) but the Portland native has a better understanding of the ways in which he can have an impact outside of scoring. Jones is averaging 6.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game in the NCAA Tournament, and four of his six turnovers in the tournament came in Sunday's win over North Carolina. Lamb is the team's third-leading scorer with an average of 12.3 points per game, shooting 49.7% overall and 48.1% from three. UConn has to keep tabs on the freshman from Queens, who can silently kill teams who fail to acknowledge his presence on the floor.
The two teams are about even when it comes to rebounding with both having rebounding margins right around a plus-4. But the Huskies grab 14 offensive rebounds per game, a number that Harrellson and Jones (among others) need to keep UConn from reaching if Kentucky is to win. Assists and turnovers are close as well, although the Wildcats allow opponents to assist on just 48% of their made baskets (UConn allows 51.5%). The job for Kentucky is a simple one on the defensive end: make Walker work for everything in hope that he struggles, making the others beat them. Given how the Huskies young players have stepped up however, that could end up being just as bad as allowing Kemba to score 30-plus on his own.