Foul shooting. This was rightfully brought up multiple times during the TV broadcast. Kentucky's inability to hit free throws and UConn's inability to miss changed the game. The broadcasters brought up this issue in the UConn - Iowa State game: when you don't miss from the line, it's incredibly hard to lose a lead. That is a preeminent reason why I stated in my preview that if UConn got a lead, look out. On the other end, I can't prove that foul shooting influences Kentucky's aggressiveness, but my conjecture is that it does. It's hard to summon the will and skill to bully your way inside and draw fouls, time after time. When the freebies aren't dropping, I think that challenge gets harder. Something to study in the future.
Dribble Drive Offense. I believed that Kentucky's relatively simplistic dribble drive offense would provide a release valve against UConn's perimeter pressure. I was wrong. Very wrong. Ryan Boatright made sure of that. It's a funny thing how intense off ball pressure, pushing guys off their spot, can make them tentative when they get the ball. Is there really a difference between catching the ball at the 3-point line and catching it a few feet further back? If anything, the latter gives you more room to accelerate. But for the young, inexperienced Kentucky guards, it made them hesitate, doubting their ability to go around defenders and attack the rim. Remember James Young's nasty dunk and procession of freebies that cut the lead to one late in the 2nd half? Those came on rim runs, runs the other Kentucky guards were unable to replicate. Nothing against the dribble drive, but Kentucky's inability to get the defense off balance with fake actions didn't help their cause. Again, I was dead wrong.
The Kentucky Bigs. All those highlight reel putback dunks are fun, but Kentucky's bigs also caused some major spacing issues that didn't help their guards' cause. On defense, it was a bad matchup for the Wildcats, going up against a team that relies on jumpers and consistently made the bigs show on the pick and roll. Then there's Julius Randle, who some are decrying for a poor performance in this game. My response would be that Randle balled for several straight games. He clearly needs polish, but I never doubted his effort. But his inability to take UConn inside, even with guys like Niels Giffey guarding him (sorry Niels), was a concern. I think he's a sure-fire NBA starter for defense and rebounding, but will he develop the skills to create his own offense? I didn't see that this season.
Shabazz Napier. Shabazz was electrifying in this game. He had no problem dribbling into the teeth of the Kentucky defense, using a low handle to get inside and crafty hesitation moves to throw defenders off balance. A few more turnovers than you'd like, but he made some incredible passes too; that's the way he's played all year. I have little doubt that he'll succeed in the NBA as a backup guard who can start alongside strong defenders (a bigger version of Boatright). For some reason I like players that see the floor, can dribble to anywhere they want, and can shoot the lid off the defense (see Burke, Trey).
UConn Bigs. The box score stats are wholly misleading. Phillip Nolan, DeAndre Daniels, and Amida Brimah shot 4-19 and grabbed only 11 of UConn's 34 boards. They also held Kentucky's NBA bigs to 7-17 shooting and 15 boards (out of 33). They did all the little things: protected the rim, spaced the floor, boxed the Kentucky bigs out so their guards could grab rebounds. Nolan had more fouls (4) than every other box score stat combined (1 rebound, 1 steal), but had a tangible effect on the game when he was in.
There are some saying now that UConn wasn't this year's best team. That may very well be true (the purpose of the tourney is to crown a champion, not find the best team). But you know what? These UConn Huskies are well coached, play fantastic defense on the perimeter and inside, hit their freebies, know who their best player is, and saw the best player if this year's tournament do some ridiculous things. If this tournament was played again starting tomorrow, the Huskies probably don't win it. But with those attributes, I'm done betting against them.
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