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UConn a different kind of test as Cats look to finish magical run

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John Calipari will coach in his second national title game in three years on Monday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari will coach in his second national title game in three years on Monday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- One win.

That's all that separates the Kentucky Wildcats from their ninth national championship, and surely the most improbable of the bunch.

To reach the national championship game, UK has survived a veritable murderer's row. Starting with Wichita State and going through Wisconsin, the Cats have taken down three Final Four teams from a season ago and four top-11 teams, according to kenpom.com.

Every one of those games has been an offensive slugfest, with UK using sound execution to advance. Perhaps the most incredible thing about the run -- other than Aaron Harrison's repeated clutch displays -- has been the Cats' ability to withstand efficient offensive days by opponent after opponent. UK has allowed 1.1 points per possession in four straight games, but stayed alive by scoring at least 1.18 points per possession.

A look at the numbers using kenpom.com's advanced stats shows recent history is unlikely to repeat itself against UConn.

When Kentucky is on offense

UK has climbed all the way up to sixth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency during the tournament, but the Cats are in for a test against a Connecticut team that's been similarly good on defense.

The Huskies rank 10th in adjusted defensive efficiency and boast impressive defensive outings against top-25 offenses Villanova, Michigan State and Florida in the tournament. UConn held all three to 0.93 points per possession or fewer to set up a rematch of the 2011 national semifinal.

UConn is a rare team that both forces turnovers at a high rate (86th nationally) and is effective avoiding fouls (71st in defensive free-throw rate). That starts with ball pressure in the backcourt from Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. The two small guards each average at least 1.5 steals per game.

That will be a test for the Harrison twins, especially Andrew. UK's point guard is playing his best basketball of the season, but he is still averaging four turnovers per game in the NCAA Tournament. Decision-making, suffice it to say, will be at a premium.

UK (143rd in effective field-goal percentage) also faces a tough matchup against UConn's first-shot defense. The Huskies rank 15th nationally in effective field-goal percentage defense largely on the strength of a front line that is the longest UK has faced this postseason. UConn ranks 12th nationally in block percentage and eighth in 2-point field-goal percentage defense.

But even if the Cats aren't hitting shots as they have the last two weeks, all hope is not lost. UK -- the second-best offensive rebounding team in the country according to kenpom.com -- will take on a UConn team ranking 247th in defensive rebounding percentage. Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee could have a field day on the offensive glass.

When Kentucky is on defense

This is another even matchup, with UK ranking 44th in defensive efficiency and UConn 37th in offensive efficiency.

The Huskies' strength is their shooting, from outside specifically. UConn is 81st nationally in effective field-goal percentage and 22nd in 3-point shooting at 38.9 percent. Shabazz Napier, DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey all shoot better than 40 percent from 3, and Daniels and Giffey figure to pose a unique matchup challenge. Often on the floor together, the two forwards are 6-foot-9 and 6-7, respectively, meaning UK's bigs will need to play close attention.

UConn is slightly above average in the turnover department (turnover rate of 17.3 percent) and below average in offensive rebounding and getting to the foul line. For UK to have success on defense, rebounding and playing without fouling will be paramount.

That's especially true given UConn's free-throw shooting. The Huskies are fourth nationally in foul shooting at 77.4 percent on the season and 86.7 percent in the tournament.

Bottom line

UK's tournament games thus far have all featured 64 or fewer possessions. Don't expect that to change on Monday night at 9:10 p.m. ET. The Huskies are 260th nationally in adjusted tempo and perfectly happy grinding it out and allowing Napier to make plays.

More of a defensive battle than we've seen of late is likely in the offing as well. UConn excels in taking opponents out of their game, primarily with ball pressure. Over the last two games, opposing point guards Keith Appling of Michigan State and Scottie Wilbekin of Florida have combined for six points on 3-of-12 shooting, three assists and seven turnovers.

Given the problems UConn poses on the perimeter on both ends of the floor, you'll likely be talking about rebounding if UK cuts down the nets. The Cats have a significant on-paper edge on both ends of the floor in this area with their athleticism, strength and length.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

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