Aaron Harrison, Julius Randle

National Title Game Primer: Five thoughts on Kentucky vs. UConn


ARLINGTON, Texas — It all comes down to one game.

On Monday evening, college basketball’s national champion will be crowned as UConn, the champions of the East Region despite being a No. 7 seed, and Kentucky, who has made their run as the No. 8 seed in the Midwest. It’s the highest-ever combined seed of two teams in the title game, with No. 3 UConn’s 2011 win over No. 8 Butler being the second-highest.

It’s weird to think about it like that, as these are two of the best basketball programs in the country. Kentucky is Kentucky, they’re a blueblood that was won eight national titles in their history. UConn? They’ve won three national titles and been to five Final Fours in the last 15 years.

But that has nothing to do with this regular season, where UConn finished tied for third in the American with SMU and Kentucky spent the first four months of the season spinning their tires. It may not sound like it if you haven’t been paying attention this season, but this really is a fluky title game.

Here are five more thoughts on what should be an epic title game:

1. Kentucky will, once again, have a massive front court advantage: The knock on UConn this season has been that their front court simply isn’t all that strong. They’ve got some length and they’ve got some shot blockers, but Amida Brimah and DeAndre Daniels aren’t going to be winning any Mr. Universe competitions any time soon. Kentucky’s front court is as big, as strong and as physically talented as they come. Brimah, and Phil Nolan, will be tasked with guarding Dakari Johnson. Daniels is going to have to matchup with Julius Randle. And when Kentucky goes big and plays Alex Poythress at the three, that defensive responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Niels Giffey. UConn better be ready to box out.

2. But UConn’s guards should wreak havoc once again: Ryan Boatright is a pest. He’s a nuisance. He’s a 5-foot-11 gnat that won’t leave opposing ball-handlers alone, a defensive nightmare that turned Michigan State into Creighton on an off-night and made Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin look like he doesn’t know. (If you got that reference without clicking the link, we should be friends.) He and Shabazz Napier will be tasked with guarding the Harrison twins, and while UK will once again have a size advantage there, this will be beneficial for UConn. Bigger, slower guards don’t like trying to dribble against quick guards with quicker hands.

3. The coach that wins chess match wins the title: Whoever better takes advantage of the mismatch at their disposal will win, but it’s not going to be that simple. Kevin Ollie knows that Kentucky’s bigs are physically overwhelming, and John Calipari knows that UConn’s guards can swarm defensively. Who makes the adjustment? Who comes up with the better game plan? What stroke of genius makes Coach Cal a two-time champ, or earns Kevin Ollie his first ring?

4. These runs has made a few of people a lot of money: DeAndre Daniels is now a first round pick. He might be a lottery pick. He’s probably gone. Three weeks ago, the Harrison twins looked like they would be returning to school. Now, it would be surprising if they didn’t enter the draft.

5. This is the flukiest title game I can remember: I’ll have more on this coming tomorrow,but think about this: UConn beat St. Joseph’s in overtime because a) Amida Brimah scored an and-one to tie the game in the final seconds and b) Halil Kanicevic fouled out on the first possession in overtime. Kentucky is in the title game after hitting four game-winning threes in their last tournament games.

Michigan State playing zone? It’s possible

Tom Izzo
Associated Press
Leave a comment

Throughout Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State the team’s half-court man-to-man defense has been a staple, and the Spartans have generally proven difficult to have a high rate of offensive success against. The reliance on that defense is why Izzo’s conversations earlier this summer about using some token full-court pressure due to the shortening of the shot clock caught some people off-guard.

According to the Detroit Free Press there’s another wrinkle the Spartans may use, and it’s likely that this wrinkle will show up more often than the full-court press. During Friday’s opening practice the Spartans worked on a 2-3 zone, and Izzo wants his assistants to make sure the team works on the defense consistently throughout the season.

That’s also why zone in general isn’t going to get heavy play at MSU, but having it as a tool could be beneficial — especially in games with touch fouls on the perimeter called in droves.

“I told (my assistant coaches): ‘You hold me accountable to working on it every day some’ … I have a tendency to drift off on that, and I don’t want to drift off on it,” Izzo said of the 2-3 zone. “But we will be, rest assured, a 90-some percent man-to-man team still and hopefully take some of those principles to zone.”

As noted in the story one of the risks in using pressure is allowing quality shots, which is why it’s unlikely that Michigan State will go to it. But even with Izzo vowing that his team will work on the zone, that doesn’t mean they’ll be playing it as often as Syracuse does.

Man-to-man has been Michigan State’s staple and it will continue to be. But it doesn’t hurt to look for other ways to keep opponents from getting the looks they want, especially if teams have five fewer seconds to find those shots.

Virginia used 3-on-3 to adjust to new shot clock

Malcolm Brogdon
Associated Press
Leave a comment

When the college basketball rules committee made the decision to trim the shot clock down to 30 second from 35, one reason for the switch was the desire to improve offensive production. With offensive numbers at their lowest point in years, proponents of the move see the shot clock change as a necessary move if scoring is to improve.

Whether or not that winds up being the case will be seen throughout the upcoming season, but teams are still having to make adjustments during the preseason.

Virginia, which has played at a snail’s pace (and with great success, mind you) in recent years, made some adjustments to their summer work in anticipation of playing with a 30-second shot clock. One adjustment was more games of 3-on-3 with a 15-second shot clock, which forced all involved to be more decisive in their offensive decision-making.

While the pack-line defense will always be a staple of Tony Bennett’s teams, the feeling in Charlottesville is that they’ve got the offensive firepower needed to both play faster and be more efficient offensively than they were in 2014-15 (29th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). One of the players who will lead the way is senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led the team in scoring and was a first team All-ACC selection, and he discussed the team’s outlook with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

And even though Anderson’s highlight-reel shot blocking was the thing that frequently fueled fast-breaks for U.Va. last season, Brogdon and [Anthony] Gill said they expect this year’s team to actually push the tempo even more.

“I think we’re going to be a team that gets out and runs more,” Brogdon said. “I think we’ll have three guards on the floor, most of the time, will be able to handle the ball as a point guard and get out in transition. I think we’ll play a lot faster.”

Brogdon and Gill are two of the team’s three returning starters with point guard London Perrantes being the other, and the Cavaliers also return most of their reserves from last year’s rotation. That experience will help them on both ends of the floor as they prepare for a run at a third straight ACC regular season title. And in theory it also allows them to extend themselves a bit more offensively than they did a season ago.