It's a Lone Star State rematch of sorts, albeit with different players, as the Huskies and Wildcats met in the national semifinals in Houston two years ago. UConn edged the Cats that night and went on to claim its third title in program history.
Very few players remain on either team from that night, but one of them is a key figure – UConn senior point guard Shabazz Napier. He played 27 minutes in that game, scoring four points and dishing out four assists off the bench. Tonight he'll be a much bigger figure in the game, having led the Huskies in scoring at 17.9 points per game on their late run to the Final Four.
UConn opened a lot of eyes – especially around Big Blue Nation – by ousting No. 1 ranked Florida in the national semifinals, a team which had beaten UK three times already this season. However, Cat fans are also scratching their heads over the Huskies' three losses to Louisville this season, all three by double figures, one by 33 points. Yes, the same Cards that UK defeated twice this year.
Kentucky has faced arguably the toughest sequence of opponents ever for a team that reached the championship game, going through undefeated No. 1 seed Wichita State in the second round, No. 4 seed Louisville in the Sweet 16, No. 2 seed Michigan in the Elite Eight and No. 2 seed Wisconsin in the national semifinals.
Who has the edge tonight? We break it down here:
KENTUCKY KEYS TO WIN:
1. On-ball defense against UConn's two lightning-quick guards. Napier and Ryan Boatright can cause mismatches for the UK backcourt. Quick guards who could penetrate and finish for scores gave the Cats problems consistently this season, but UK has improved in that regard as the season drew to a close. The Cats have to stay in front of the ball-handler and use their size and length advantage to frustrate the 6-foot-1 Napier and the 6-foot Boatright.
2. Containing DeAndre Daniels. He's become a force for the Huskies in March Madness, and he'll be a major key for Julius Randle, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress. The former UK recruit is lean, but at 6-9 can shoot the ball outside and take the defending player off the dribble. Julius will have to be ready to move his feet and use his brute strength to contain Daniels.
3. Limit turnovers. UConn's guards like to get under the ball handler and poke the ball away. Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison will have to be strong and quick with their decisions when the ball is their hands. The Huskies can struggle at times offensively (144th nationally in scoring), so you don't want to give them easy transition scoring opportunities.
KENTUCKY KEY PLAYER(S):
James Young and Alex Poythress will be X-factors in tonight's game. If both can play similar to how they performed against Wisconsin, the smaller guards and forwards of UConn will have to concentrate on both players. This will help Andrew Harrison penetrate the paint and will help Randle find more room to operate in the lane.
CONNECTICUT KEYS TO WIN:
1. Outside shooting will have to keep UConn in the game as it won't likely be able to match UK blow for blow around the basket. If the 3-point shots are falling, like Wisconsin thrived against the Cats, the Huskies will have a shot to win.
2. Penetrating the paint. If Boatright and Napier can work into the lane and create fouls on the Harrison twins and the UK bigs, it will create offense for DeAndre Daniels.
3. Rebounding the ball. This could be the biggest mismatch entering the game. Kentucky is fifth nationally and UConn is 146th on the glass. Kentucky's offense and defense is largely predicated by rebounding the ball, creating more shots for the Cats and limiting shots for their opponents. If UConn can hang close in that department, it could mean danger for UK.
CONNECTICUT KEY PLAYER:
DeAndre Daniels will be key for UConn either winning its fourth NCAA title or finishing runner-up for the first time. In a key moment during the game with Florida, Daniels hit a 3-pointer to cut the Gators' lead from 16-4 to 16-7. Since then, he hit got on a roll offensively and UConn roared back into the lead. If he goes, the entire team goes. John Calipari has challenged Julius Randle to make the matchup personal after his star player was often beaten by Wisconsin's Sam Dekker.