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A Champion Is Crowned

#7 Connecticut defeated #8 Kentucky

Monday’s national title game ended with a pair of missed threes, and a rebound that careened across the court. Instead of the normal sequence of fouls and timeouts, we got an abrupt and surprisingly quick ending to a basketball game. Jim Nance barely found time to sneak in a quote about UConn winning the title for the postgame highlight reel.

And in some ways, that abrupt, quick finish was appropriate. This UConn title snuck up on us and caught us all by surprise. It is hard to call the UConn win a complete shocker. When a team had won three national titles in the previous 15 seasons, it was not quite like Butler and VCU making the same Final Four.

Moreover, when a team had guards as quick and talented as Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, out-executing a team down the stretch should not have been shocking. And yet Napier did not look like his normal comfortable self in this game. When he and Boatright dived out of bounds for a loose ball, and Napier had no one to throw it too, Napier was frustrated. When Kentucky got a bucket and foul moments later, Napier was angry with his teammates. This was not quite the normal calm and calculated late game execution you normally saw from UConn. And yet there it was, the final buzzer sounded, and the game was over. And it was hard not to play-up three storylines:

1) The downfall of youth

Connecticut was the veteran team that knew the importance of practice and making free throws. They were 10 of 10 relative to Kentucky’s 13 of 24.

Kentucky all season was like the young college student that loves to procrastinate. First, they didn’t focus enough during the season, and had to overcome an 8-seed to make the Final Four. Then they kept falling behind by double digits in every game. Metaphorically, they didn’t study for their exams until the final minute, and they bombed the final.

But that’s probably a gross simplification. What Kentucky really struggled with was adjusting to each opponent’s approach. They had the talent to compete with anyone, but it usually took them awhile to figure out where they had their strengths. On Monday, it took them awhile to figure out that the Harrison twins could not beat Napier and Boatright on penetration.

And even late in the game, they struggled to adjust. When UConn went very small and played zone with Amida Brimah and Phillip Nolan in foul trouble, Kentucky didn’t have a clue how to attack that defense on the first possession. They wasted a chance to throw a simple lob to Julius Randle, and a veteran team would have seized that moment.

2) The downfall of philosophy

If Kentucky’s youth was costly on Monday, you can argue the one-and-done strategy is flawed. But I think there was another failure of the NBA development strategy too.

Anyone who watched Kentucky this year knew they struggled with pick-and-roll defense. John Calipari decided he was going to use a switching man-to-man defense this year, and it was never great. I thought from the beginning of the year that if Kentucky played zone, they would have the best chance. Passing over the top of a defense with 6’6” players up top would be virtually impossible. But playing zone doesn’t really fit with the philosophy of one-and-done players. Like the dribble-drive offense, Calipari was trying to get his team to learn how to play man-to-man defense, because that’s what the NBA wants to see. And Calipari values the NBA pipeline over everything else.

Busting out a zone defense helped a little on Monday, but according to Seth Davis, Kentucky only played zone five percent of the time this season. That simply wasn’t enough game preparation to be ready to play elite zone defense in the title game.

That said, this doesn’t prove Calipari’s philosophy of focusing on developing players for the next level is a bad one. Kentucky played for a national title. And if Julius Randle has a more typical day, or if the Wildcats made a few free throws, his strategy would have worked.

3) The downfall of arrogance and the redemption of years of practice

One of the things that amazed me heading into Monday’s title game between Kentucky and Connecticut is how many people viewed Kentucky as a huge villain. Unlike Michigan’s Fab Five, Kentucky has never really captured the nation’s imagination. And that’s surprising because these kids have done nothing to earn our hatred.  This is not a team where the players have been arrested or suspended for off-court conduct. Julius Randle is a gregarious and charismatic player on the court, and I don’t know how anyone can watch him play and wish harm upon him.

What people hate about this team is not the players, but the concept of this team. Whatever you want to say about Michigan’s Fab Five, at least they stuck around in school a little while. This group has basically announced from the start of the season that college degrees are not their long term goal.

It also hurt that they were not even remotely humble. Just like when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh announced that they were getting together to win multiple titles, John Calipari endorsed the idea that this team could go undefeated. That kind of confidence comes across as arrogance, and it turned people off from the beginning.

The good news about Final Four weekend, is that even if you get sick of all the future NBA stars, there is still an acknowledgement of something more. Saturday afternoon featured the NABC Senior Game. And if you missed it, spend a minute looking at the rosters, and you will see some of the players that symbolize college basketball. Personally, I was happy to see Indiana’s Will Sheehey, denied a post-season experience because “Indiana doesn’t play in the CBI”, play well in that game. Sheehey started the game with a three and moments later he had a brilliant drive for a basket and one. It was a more fitting end for the Hoosier senior than the first-round flame-out in the Big Ten tournament.

But in the second half of the NABC senior game, Doug Gottlieb and Steve Lappas really hit the nail on the head with their commentary. First they talked about how Pittsburgh’s Talib Zanna came from Nigeria to the US and saw snow for the first time. Then they talked about how Zanna enrolled at Pittsburgh because his dad knew a professor, not a basketball coach. They talked about how Zanna, despite being a less heralded recruit, was actually Pitt’s best post player over the last three years.

Then they talked about Rober Morris’ Karvel Anderson. Anderson went from being homeless to becoming a star college player, to becoming a man with a college degree. They talked about Weber St.’s Davion Berry becoming the first member of his family to get a college degree. Even if your stomach turns at seeing one-and-done players in the title game, Saturday was one last chance to salute the players who symbolize what college basketball is all about.

And Monday gave us that chance too. UConn senior Shabazz Napier went from apprentice to leader, and earned titles at the start and the end. He improved his efficiency and shot volume every year. He was a leader in every area of the court.

But probably the player who best exemplified college basketball was Niels Giffey. Giffey was never going to be the best player on the basketball court. He lacked the strength or quickness to be a truly dominant player. There were plenty of times during his career where I questioned why UConn kept playing him. But he honed his jump shot. After averaging just 10 threes per year as a freshman, sophomore, and junior, his coach finally saw his shot falling in practice and gave him the green light. And Giffey made 60 threes, shooting nearly 50%, as a senior. His two late threes in the national title game were daggers. In a game filled with fabulous freshmen, UConn would have never won without a hard-working senior.

And for many fans, the villain was slain.

Looking Ahead

In sports today, there is no offseason.

If you have not yet read my Way Too Early Top 25, click here.

Next week, we’ll have team coverage of the best high school all-star game of the year, the Nike Hoop Summit. And we’ll be back with coverage of the Jordan Brand Classic the week after that.

In May, I’ll be back with my Way Too Early Conference Previews. And I hope to have some other fun summer features as well. For example, I have some numbers and hope to show whether the change in the foul rules has made PGs more valuable than SGs.

And as always, RealGM will have wiretaps on all the key coaching changes, transfers, and NBA draft decisions. Even if they just cut down the nets, we’re not going anywhere.

UConn-Kentucky Title Game Shows Changes In College Basketball

The 2014 NCAA Tournament provided one of the strangest championship matchups between seventh seeded Connecticut and eighth seeded Kentucky. Each team’s run to reach the finals was unlikely, but showed the changing landscape in college basketball.

Kentucky’s strategy has been well documented. The Wildcats start five freshmen, all of whom are McDonald’s All-Americans, and even have another All-American coming off the bench in Marcus Lee. The one-and-done rule has been analyzed and discussed plenty of times throughout the last few years, but it has certainly worked for Kentucky. John Calipari has a chance to win his second NCAA title in the past three seasons behind his recruiting strategy. It has been criticized for not being sustainable, but it seems to be working just fine for the Wildcats. Kentucky knocked off a Wisconsin team that started four upperclassmen and a sophomore to reach the final.

The Wildcats clearly had the talent to make this run, but had early struggles due to the heavy dosage of inexperience. As the season progressed, Kentucky has shown why it was ranked as the preseason’s top-ranked team.

What’s more surprising was Connecticut’s run to make the championship game. Kevin Ollie didn’t recruit most of his roster, but his offense and maneuvering of lineups have been essential to reach the championship. The Huskies starting lineup has shown a change of the times as well.

In the backcourt, Connecticut has two scoring point guards in Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Both Napier and Boatright can play either guard spot and score at a high level. Napier, a 6-foot-1 senior, is averaging 17.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game this season while drawing the inevitable comparisons to Kemba Walker. Boatright, a 6-foot junior, has chipped in 12.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game. They can both beat defenders in isolation situations, helping the Huskies at the end of the shot clock.

Although they may give up some size in the backcourt, their energy and quickness give opposing guards trouble. In their last game against Florida, Napier and Boatright forced point guards Scottie Wilbekin and Kasey Hill into committing an uncharacteristic seven turnovers and limited them to only 11 points.

To put that in perspective, the Florida tandem has averaged a combined 18.6 points and only 3.3 turnovers per game. Last year’s Louisville squad had an undersized backcourt as well, meaning this could be back-to-back years where the starting guards were 6-foot-1 or smaller. While Napier and Boatright may form an unconventional backcourt compared to most NCAA teams, their production has been key to Connecticut’s run.

The Huskies’ frontcourt has been a recent trend as well. At the “3” position, Connecticut starts a three-point sniper with Niels Giffey. He’s struggled from behind the arc this tournament, but is hitting threes at a 48 percent clip this season. Giffey doesn’t have many plays ran for him, but his jumper has allowed him to start for the Huskies. He may not score at a high rate, but his jumper creates spacing for the guards to excel and avoid help defenders. A similar role was seen in Louisville’s Luke Hancock last season.

The “4” position, however, might be the reason Connecticut has reached the championship. Junior DeAndre Daniels has been the new-school breed of power forwards in the college game who are athletic and can stretch the floor. He’ll likely translate into a small forward at the next level, but his versatility has been a huge advantage for the Huskies. This tournament, the 6-foot-9 forward from Los Angeles has averaged 17.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. He even played the center position against Florida on occasions.

Connecticut doesn’t ask a lot from the center position and prefers a defensive-minded rim protector. Phillip Nolan and Amida Brimah are only averaging a combined 7.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, but also contribute 2.7 blocks. The offense doesn’t require a skilled “5” which is a plus because of the rarity of this type of player in today’s age.

The following play, published on the Twitter account @RollOrPop, shows one of the main concepts of Connecticut’s offense. The “5” sets a screen for the “1” which can potentially create space for a three-pointer. If not there, the “4” and “5” screen for the “2” who catches the ball at the top of the arc. Both guards touch the ball and have the freedom to create off the dribble.

The next play, also published by @RollOrPop, now hopes to get the ball in Napier’s hands. Napier, who would be the “1” on this play, gives it up to the “4” and the “1” sets a screen for the “3”. If the defender gets caught on the screen, the “4” can find the cutting “3” for an easy look. This sequence likely won’t be there, but the “5” goes on to screen for the “1”. The “4” feeds the “1” on the wing who could have space to knock down the three. If not, there’s now spacing for the “1” to attack off the dribble or call the “5” for a pick-and-roll.

Both examples show the attempt to feed the guards and allow for creativity and spacing. Ollie has brought a simple yet effective offense to play to his team’s strength.

The contrasting backcourts will be a storyline to watch as the quicker, experienced Connecticut guards take on the bigger, stronger, but younger Harrison twins. Aaron Harrison has hit some big-time shots to get to this point and will look to continue his clutch play in the finals. Napier, on the other hand, hopes to end his collegiate career with two NCAA titles.

No matter who wins, this game will be interesting to watch because of simply how different these teams are compared to traditional champions. There are plenty of similarities to be seen in Louisville and Connecticut, but earlier champions haven’t had these types of lineups, especially in the backcourt. Kentucky’s closest comparison to a national champion is probably to, well, Kentucky’s team led by Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist three years ago. Outside of that, freshman loaded rosters haven’t had this type of success since Michigan’s Fab Five.

College basketball is changing in more ways than one; Connecticut and Kentucky were simply ahead of the curve this year.

Final Four Saturday

#8 Kentucky defeated #2 Wisconsin

This tournament is decided by the slimmest of margins. I honestly don’t mean this as a slam against Kentucky, as I think it is better as a compliment. When Kentucky trailed Wichita St. 40-31, Ken Pomeroy’s in-game probabilities said they had only a 12% chance of winning. When they trailed Louisville 64-57 with 5 minutes left, they had only a 5% chance of winning. When they trailed Michigan 32-22, they had just a 22% chance of winning. Saturday against Wisconsin was no different. To overcome those odds is something that you can never take away from this incredible group of freshmen.

Someday they will make one of those ESPN 30 for 30 movies about this team. They will talk about the recruiting, the expectations, the disappointment.

And they will talk about redemption. Alex Poythress scored only eight points on Saturday, but I don’t think I have ever seen a player make as many momentum swinging buckets in one game.

They will talk about surprises. Kentucky supposedly couldn’t win if the Harrison twins were on the bench, but less heralded freshman Dominique Hawkins played 11 critical minutes, including several at the end of the first half as Kentucky cut the lead. (And don’t forget about Marcus Lee’s dunk over Frank Kaminsky’s head.)

They will talk about players stepping up. When Wisconsin went up seven to start the second half and John Calipari called time-out, James Young almost single-handedly saved the game. He helped force a shot-clock violation on defense. Then he drove and was fouled. Then he hit a jumper. Then he had a steal from behind. Then he had a floater that was put in by Poythress. He personally sparked a run that for a period of time, made Kentucky look invincible.

They will talk about a heroic recovery from injury. When Julius Randle sprained his ankle in the first half, it looked like Kentucky’s dream might be over. But there was Randle late in the game driving for a key basket and foul to keep his team in the game.

They will talk about family. After Andrew Harrison fouled Traevon Jackson and sent him to the line for three free throws, his brother Aaron Harrison hit a miraculous three (again) to save his brother, and his team.

And whether Kentucky wins or loses Monday’s championship game, this season will go down as one of the most amazing stories of all time.

But Kentucky fans will have to forgive me if I save a lot of this space for Wisconsin. I wrote a long game review about the Connecticut and Florida team simulcasts. (Scroll down for the recap.) But it wasn’t until I watched Wisconsin lose that I realized how powerful the team simulcasts can be.

For probably 20 years, I’ve heard Wayne Larrivee’s voice calling various sporting events in the Midwest. And just the sound of his melodious wordsmithing brings back feelings of being a teenager and hearing a regional broadcast of a Big Ten game at 11am CT. And though I watched the game on TBS with Jim Nance, Steve Kerr, and Greg Anthony, when the game was over, I switched to the Wisconsin simulcast. And I rewound and listened again as Larrivee called the final minutes of action. The beauty of the simulcasts is sometimes as simple as this. The local legends and heroes who have called games for decades finally get to call the most important games of a school’s existence. Is there anything more perfect than that?

And then on the Wisconsin channel, while John Calipari could faintly be heard giving his interview with Tracy Wolfson in the background, they simply showed the Wisconsin fans one at a time. They showed sadness. They showed distress. They showed shock. They showed pride.

Florida’s loss on Saturday will be painful for a long-time. To lose as a heavy-favorite is never easy to overcome. But to lose at the last second like Wisconsin lost, when the opportunity for a championship was at hand, is devastating.

In the post-game interview, Charles Barkley basically said two things. First, he said it was a great game. Then he said, losing is extremely painful. When you look at those two thoughts on paper, they are truly inane. But that is why Charles Barkley is absolutely the best in the business at what he does. He can take those simple statements and make them mean something.

And you cannot get over how painful this loss is for Wisconsin. Having watched the Badgers for 20 years, and having seen the team make the Final Four before, I can easily say that this is the best Wisconsin team I have ever seen play. Frank Kaminsky was a dynamic post player, driver, and three point shooter. Sam Dekker, while later posterized by Alex Poythress, opened the second half by blocking a Julius Randle dunk attempt inside. He showed spectacular athleticism. The Badgers had the perfect collection of shooters. And with Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser, and a suddenly emerging Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin also had a group of perimeter players who could beat their man off the dribble. For this team to end its run short of the pinnacle is truly heart-breaking.

The temptation is to look ahead to next year. Of all the rotation players, only Ben Brust graduates. If Frank Kaminsky does not declare for the draft, expectations should be through the roof. I’ve already run my Way-To-Early-Simulation for next year and I can tell you that if everyone comes back, I project Wisconsin fourth nationally.

But you cannot look to the future and assume everything will work out as planned. Ask Michigan St. how quickly a dream lineup can go astray. Ask Marcus Smart what happens when you come back to get your team deeper into the tournament. In a one-game setting, almost anything can happen. This may be as good as it ever gets.

I remember when Dee Brown, Deron Williams, and the Illini went 37-2 and returned home after losing the Championship Game in 2005. Bruce Weber had a somewhat pessimistic comment when he came back to town. People kept telling him, “We will win it next year coach.” And Weber’s response was not, “Of course.” His response was, “Enjoy the moment. Remember this season. 37-2 will not happen nearly often enough.”

And that’s what I have to say to Wisconsin fans. You don’t have to worry about falling off the map, because Bo Ryan is a winner. But also realize that the joy of this season will rarely, if ever, be duplicated. The amazing comeback against Oregon, the shocking beat-down of Baylor, and the thrilling game against Arizona, are memories that Wisconsin fans should hold dear for the rest of their life. Go buy that Final Four shirt and wear it with pride.

#7 Connecticut defeated #1 Florida

I watched quite a bit of the team simulcasts during the Connecticut vs Florida game. If you were hoping for some comedic hometown announcers that gleefully explain how their team never commits a foul, you were probably disappointed.  There were the occasional hidden jabs.  For example, the Florida announcers made sure to emphasize that when Florida lost to Connecticut early in the season that Kasey Hill did not play. And even though Florida trailed at the half, the Gators production team pulled out a stat from Bloomberg that said that the Gators were still favored to win 54% of the time. But, overall the jabs were pretty subtle.

To really understand the differences, I watched the exact same moments of game time. I watched both simulcasts in their entirety through the first ten minutes of game action, and for the final five minutes of regulation:

-Starting with the opener, the UConn channel showed highlights of UConn from this season. Meanwhile, the Florida channel showed highlights of Florida from this season. Both packages were well done. This was a good idea.

-The UConn channel showed a graphic that said that UConn has the sixth most NCAA titles in history. Meanwhile, the Florida announcers noted that the Gators were the #1 overall team in the entire NCAA tournament.

-The UConn channel showed a tweet from Rip Hamilton telling his team to #standup. Meanwhile, the Florida channel had a graphic that said that there were 110,000 Twitter mentions of the Gators over the weekend, and 75,000 fewer mentions of UConn.

-Opening minute: The UConn announcers bemoaned the fact that Florida’s Michael Frazier hit a three to open the game. “That’s a very bad sign.” Ironically, it was Florida's only three of the game. Meanwhile, the Florida announcers didn’t just praise the play, they fully diagnosed the play. “That was a designed set by the Gators. It is called the elevator play.” The Gator crew then showed a complete replay of what led to Frazier getting open. Frazier essentially slid between two Gator forwards who stepped together and cut off Shabazz Napier. Meanwhile, the UConn announce team moved on and did not emphasize what led to the open shot. This showed an important distinction between the two telecasts. This was not just the same set of pictures with different announcers. These were completely different productions.

-When the Gators took a 7-0 lead, again we saw a key difference between the two production crews. The UConn channel just cut to a commercial, but the Florida channel first showed a shot of the Florida student section cheering. Overall, the team channels only showed the fans of the team in the spotlight.

-At 12:18 left in the first half Patric Young blocked Ryan Boatright’s shot out-of-bounds leading to a shot-clock violation. On the Florida channel, they emphasized the incredible defense that Florida displayed for 35 seconds. But on the UConn channel they talked about what a great job Boatright did getting into the lane. They noted that Boatright just held the ball a second too long which allowed Young to recover and get the block.

-After the under 12 minute timeout, we saw the next biggest difference in the two production crews. They had different interviews with formers players. While former UConn player Swin Cash was interviewing Caron Butler and Jeremy Lamb, over on the Florida channel the sideline reporter’s microphone wasn’t working.  (Later the Florida channel would interview Chandler Parsons and Matt Bonner.)

In my opinion, this was a huge and important difference in having multiple channels broadcast the game. One of the most painful things that can happen when watching your team play in a sporting event is for the announcers to interview someone related to the opposing team. First, the interview almost always makes it impossible to follow the game action. And second, if it isn’t your team, you don’t care what the interviewee has to say. In this case, if you hated the interviews, you could always switch back to the primary TBS telecast. (And quite frankly, you should have made this choice. In the Matt Bonner interview we learned that he now only wears corduroy pants and he has given up jeans. This is some information I never wanted to know.)

Jumping ahead to the last five minutes of the game:

-At 4:25 left, the Florida announcers reminded us that there was “still plenty of time left.” Meanwhile, the Connecticut announcers noted that it was too early to hold the ball and run clock.

-At 3:53 on the Florida channel we got the Infiniti Spotlight. They showed a 3D view of Florida’s great court spacing which allowed Patric Young to go one-on-one and get an easy basket inside. Meanwhile, the Connecticut channel showed the Capital One Cup Impact Performance which featured a series of highlights of DeAndre Daniels.

-With 2:04 left and Shabazz Napier heading to the line, the UConn channel focused on Napier’s mom. Meanwhile, the Florida channel showed the sad Gator players sitting on the bench.

-With 1:21 left, UConn turned the ball over. On the UConn channel, “This game is not over!” But on the Florida channel, they had gone into full concession mode and were talking about the “core four” Florida Gator seniors, whose career was now over.

This, by the way, is a key feature of human nature. When you are up 10 with 1:21 left, you are still nervous and fear the loss. But when you are down 10 with 1:21 left, you usually view the lead as insurmountable.

-With 47.5 seconds left in the game, Patric Young made a miraculous play diving for a loose ball. The Florida channel praised his effort while talking about all of Florida’s great wins this season, including winning at Tennessee and Kentucky in the same week. On the Connecticut channel, they started showing shots of the UConn players on the bench jumping up and down and needing to be restrained by Kevin Ollie from stepping on the floor. They also panned to the UConn fans cheering.

-Postgame: Florida’s announcers noted that after the way the season started with all the injuries and off-court issues, no one gave the Gators a shot of making it this far. Meanwhile UConn’s announcers noted that no one gave Kevin Ollie’s squad a shot of making it to the national title game.

As for the game, I thought Steve Kerr nailed it. While Florida won the points in the paint 32-14 in the first match-up, they did not dominate in this area in this game. That was a little shocking given that Amida Brimah and Philip Nolan were in significant foul trouble and UConn had to go small on a number of occasions. Patric Young carried Florida for quite a stretch in the second half, but it wasn’t enough.

I thought former Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun (interviewed on the UConn channel), also had the perfect take on the game. He said that people assume that when a team goes small, the defense will be terrible. But Connecticut’s players were able to stay closer to the ground, and that made it very hard for Florida to get by them. Florida was a team that penetrated and shared the ball for easy baskets. But Florida had just three assists in the whole game. And Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright got some huge steals again in this game. And somehow, a Connecticut team that lost to Louisville 81-48 just a few weeks ago, is playing for a national title.

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