Friday, April 1, 2011

Final Four Preview: No. 3 UConn vs. No. 4 Kentucky

The story lines in Saturday's second semifinal matchup are seemingly endless. There's the Jim Calhoun-John Calipari rivalry. There is the battle for UConn's status as a "blueblood". There is the possibility that this could be the end of the road for Calhoun. There is the fact that this is a rematch of the Maui Invitational title game. Kentucky's pursuit of their eighth title. One-and-done's. Kemba Walker. Josh Harrellson.

The list goes on.

This post? Its not about story lines. Its not about what's happened in the past. It is about the hoops. Plain and simple.

The Details: UConn and Kentucky played back in November, and the Huskies trounced the Wildcats. UConn won 84-67, and the game probably wasn't even that close. But talking about that game is meaningless, because the two teams that will be taking the court on Saturday night are two completely different teams than the ones that did battle out in Hawaii four months ago.

For UConn, the change has been in the supporting cast. Kemba Walker is still Kemba Walker. He's always going to be Kemba Walker. While he's not quite shooting as well from three as he was in Maui, he is still a terror to try to stay in front of. The difference is in the play of the UConn supporting cast. Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier, Roscoe Smith, and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel have all grown and developed so much confidence over the course of the season. Their play has made UConn a Final Four team.

As far as Kentucky is concerned, the only person that really showed up against UConn was Terrence Jones. That's ironic, because the only player that hasn't really shown up for Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament has also be Jones. He's struggled with his aggressiveness, and possibly his confidence, as he seems to stay in Calipari's dog house. Brandon Knight has been playing great in the tournament, and he was atrocious in the November game against UConn. Most importantly, however, the trio of Josh Harrellson, DeAndre Liggins, and Darius Miller have been sensational during this run.

Key matchup: DeAndre Liggins vs. Kemba Walker

DeAndre Liggins struggled through much of his first season and a half in Lexington. He had a tough time adjusting to collegiate coaching. But as he slowly started to buy into what Calipari was selling, Liggins has become one of the most valuable pieces for the Wildcats. He can hit threes and create off the dribble, but his most valuable asset has been his play on the defensive end of the floor, where he is one of the best on ball defenders in the country. Liggins is athletic enough that he can stay in front of players six inches shorter than him, mainly because at 6'6", he is long enough to contest their shot.

And that is where his value comes in on Saturday. Liggins will almost assuredly spend the majority of his time on the floor harassing Kemba defensively. They key for Liggins will be to keep Kemba in front of him. If the six-foot UConn point guard gets a step on a defender, the game is over. He can get to the bucket, he can draw fouls on contact, and he is also a willing and capable passer when he draws a crowd defensively. With his length, Liggins will be able to contest any shot that Walker tries to take over him, which is why it is so important for him to keep Walker in front.

Key stat: UConn's OR% and eFG%

UConn has the 11th most efficient offense in the country, but they aren't a very good shooting ball club. What makes UConn's offense so effective is that they maximize their number of chances. This is a UConn team that doesn't turn the ball over much and is terrific on the offensive glass. In other words, the Huskies may not shoot as high of a percentage as some other teams do, but they end up with the same number of points because they are able to take more shots.

What Kentucky does very well is defend shooters. They don't allow many easy looks at the rim, which means that a relatively poor shooting UConn team is going to have to make even tougher shots. That said, the Wildcats are fairly mediocre on the defensive glass. UConn is going to have to make some tough perimeter shots if they want to win, but Kentucky is going to have to control the defensive glass is they want to take advantage of those misses.

X-factor: Alex Oriakhi vs. Josh Harrellson

The important of the matchup between Jeremy Lamb and Darius Miller shouldn't be understated, but the battle of the bigs is going to take on much more meaning. As was the case against Arizona and Derrick Williams, Oriakhi is not going to be able to guard Terrence Jones on the perimeter. That means that UConn is going to have to go to a smaller lineup, using Roscoe Smith at the four, to matchup with him.

And that sets up a battle of Oriakhi and Harrellson. Harrellson plays the blue collar role for Kentucky. He's a hustler, he's a defender, and the Wildcats only real size on the interior. Oriakhi does much of the same, but his biggest value for UConn is his work on the offensive glass. That will be one of the most fun individual matchups of the tournament to watch.

And the winner is?: Kentucky

I just don't think that UConn is going to be able to slow down Terrence Jones. He's struggled in this tournament, but he knows that he can have a big impact against a Husky team that is ill-equipped to handle his skill set. And with the rest of the Kentucky lineup playing will, I think the Wildcats just have too many weapons.

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