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National Title Preview: No. 7 UConn vs. No. 8 Kentucky

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FINAL FOURNational title game primer | All of our Final Four coverage | Fluky vs. Lucky

ARLINGTON, Texas — The college basketball season comes to a close tonight as No. 7 seed UConn squares off with No. 8 seed Kentucky in the national title game. Here is all you need to know about this matchup:

WHEN: 9:10 p.m. ET (TBS)

WHERE: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, TX

MAJOR STORY LINES: No one has ever won a national title while starting five freshmen. Michigan’s Fab Five played for a title in 1991 with five freshmen leading the way, and, for the record, they did it as a No. 6 seed. Kentucky’s 2012 team won a title, and while the theme of that tournament run was that Coach Cal proved that a team built around freshmen could win it all, what gets forgotten is that those Wildcats only started three freshmen along with Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones. This would be the first team to ever bring home a ring with five freshmen in the starting lineup.

UConn, however, is looking to pull off one of the most improbable national title runs of all time. They are a seven seed. They beat the Atlantic 10 tournament champs, the Big East regular season champs, the Big 12 tournament champs, the Big Ten tournament champs (who also happened to be the favorite to win the title) and the No. 1 overall seed who hadn’t lost in 30 games. And now they’re trying to beat the preseason No. 1 team. With all due respect to these Huskies, this group would probably be the “worst” national champion of all time, which makes what they’ve done the last month all the more impressive.

KEY STATS: On the season, UConn’s allowed opponents to grab 32.9% of their available offensive rebounds, which ranks 247th nationally. In their five NCAA tournament games, UConn that number fell to 28.9%, which is top 60. Kentucky has an overwhelming size advantage in the front court and they are the nation’s best offensive rebounding team.

KEY PLAYERS: The key matchup for the Huskies is going to be between Ryan Boatright and Andrew Harrison. UConn is going to have issues keeping Kentucky’s big men from doing damage in the paint Monday night, but one of the best ways to counteract an overpowering front line is to get out and pressure the guards, making it difficult to throw an entry pass to a player in the post. Boatright has been sensational of late at playing as the point of UConn’s defensive pressure, and he should be able to do the same against the bigger, slower Harrisons.

RELATEDUConn played Florida’s game | Alex Poythress | Kentucky’s game-winner

POINT SPREAD: Kentucky (-3)


1. DeAndre Daniels: He’s perennially the x-factor for UConn. He’s a lottery-level talent that doesn’t always play like a lottery level talent. When he does, like he has throughout this tournament, UConn is a completely different team.

2. Kentucky’s perimeter defense: What UConn is going to try to do is to control the ball in the half court and limit Kentucky’s possessions offensively, which means that UConn’s offense will, more often than not, devolve into the Huskies allowing Napier and Boatright to try and make a play getting into the lane at the end of a shot clock. Keep them from penetrating and beat UConn.

3. Kentucky’s commitment to the paint: The Wildcats have been terrific shooting the ball from the perimeter in this tournament, but the reason that they beat Wisconsin is that they consistently pounded the ball into the paint, whether via entry pass or penetration. If they avoid settling for threes, they’ll win.


No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.