UConn-Kentucky: The game within the game

ASSOCIATED PRESS Kentucky coach John Calipari and UConn coach Kevin Ollie embrace during an interview ahead of the championship game.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Kentucky coach John Calipari and UConn coach Kevin Ollie embrace during an interview ahead of the championship game.
Posted: April 08, 2014

ARLINGTON, Texas - I liked four teams when this NCAA Tournament began - Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan State and Florida. Kentucky has beaten two of them, Connecticut the other two. Now, what?

The seeds stopped mattering when the games started. Add these seeds up and you get 15. Watch and analyze the 10 games UK and UConn have played in this tournament and you get the teams that have performed the best now playing for the championship.

I have been in the building for each of UConn's five wins. Only one has been close at the finish. Ask any Saint Joseph's fan for the details. Right before my eyes and nearly 80,000 other pairs Saturday night at AT&T Stadium, I saw UConn dominate Florida for the final 29 minutes of the game. I really did not think that was possible.

When you have a set of expectations that turn out to be incorrect, you can either be stubborn or deal with the new reality. UConn absolutely can win the national championship tonight.

The Huskies beat St. Joe's and Iowa State with their offense, Villanova and Michigan State with their defense, Florida with offense and defense.

This is a team playing with incredible confidence now. The Huskies believe they are going to win, and belief matters. It does not trump talent, but it can beat talent.

Kentucky is the more talented team. Get a good look at its players tonight. It will be the last look at many until the NBA season starts in the fall.

Julius Randle is certainly going. The Harrison twins might roll, too. Who knows how many others?

"The one thing I don't do a good job of is looking back," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "The guys that have played for me know I just keep looking forward."

And he is not talking about the draft. He is talking about tonight.

The Wildcats have been winning with superior offense and big shots at the finish. Their four-game stretch against Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin is really unprecedented, averaging a crazy 1.24 points per possession. Wichita and Louisville are top-10 defenses. Did not matter. The Wildcats scored on them anyway. They will be facing another top-10 defense tonight.

If you want to explain to your friends the essence of this game, tell them it is the country's sixth most efficient offense (and most efficient in this tournament) in Kentucky against the nation's 10th most efficient defense, a team that defends the basket better than all but seven teams in America. And Kentucky's game is attacking the rim. So watch that game within the game.

"My main thing is making the offensive player uncomfortable," UConn star Shabazz Napier said.

Comfort, Napier said, is key for him when he has the ball.

"I know if someone can get me uncomfortable, it makes me frustrated," Napier said.

Only St. Joe's has really made Napier uncomfortable in this tournament. I doubt Kentucky is going to make him uncomfortable tonight.

But that is just part of the equation. Can UConn get enough stops at the rim to give its shooters a chance to outscore Kentucky?

"They're playing their best basketball," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said of Kentucky. "That's what great teams do and that's what great coaches do."

It is a fascinating, if entirely unexpected, championship matchup. It is like the regular season did not matter at all. It did, of course, just not nearly as much for these teams that peaked at precisely the right moment.

So, it is UK against UConn, a combined 18 losses during the season, zero losses since the moment a loss would end a season. This season - which featured an unbeaten team in Wichita State, a transcendent player in Creighton's Doug McDermott, new leagues with familiar teams in unfamiliar places - comes down to one game in a giant dome that looks like it descended from the heavens and landed a half-hour west of Dallas with unclear intentions.

The stadium is a monument to American excess in the 21st century. So, really, is the Final Four, which just keeps increasing in popularity despite some of the bozos in charge of it who are more about themselves than the athletes who support all this excess.

In the end, it will come down to a basketball game between one group of teenagers and very recent former teenagers.

"You have to realize it's just like any other game," Andrew Harrison said. "It's not, but you have to think of it as any other game."

I have seen the pressure finally hit teams in this spot when there is something tangible on the line. Those other five games were just games to be played to get another game. This game is for a championship and history and forever.

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