Date: Monday, April 7
Time: 9:10 pm Eastern
Location: Arlington, TX
A 7-seed vs. and 8-seed? Quite a surprise, but the teams involved are not: both have won 3 titles in the last two decades, and it's a matchup of the 2011 and 2012 champions.
SportsRatings Power Ratings
Strength: #21 Strength: #14
Median play: #25 Median play: #13
Road/Neutral Rank: #20 Road/Neutral Rank: #14
Other Power Ratings
Sagarin(predictor):#12 Sagarin: #10
Pomeroy: #10 Pomeroy: #9
Offense: #37 Offense: #6
Defense: #10 Defense: #44
LRMC: #26* LRMC: #15*
BPI: #18 BPI: #7
Power Rating Derivatives
2nd half/season: #8 2nd half/season: #14
NCAA tournament: #3 NCAA tournament: #7
Consistency: #307* Consistency: #15*
Schedule Strength: #50* Schedule Strength: #27*
*LRMC, Consistency, and SOS as of March 16th
Kentucky is the favorite by all of the power ratings, but it's close and Kenpom's ratings have it closest of all, giving both offenses a slight edge over their counterpart on defense. Recent play actually favors the Huskies; despite the Wildcats' high-profile wins, all the games were very close.
Another big difference is consistency. Kentucky was extremely consistent before the tournament, and when refigured including the tournament they're up to #12 in consistency. UConn is very inconsistent, which explains their outlier performances but not how they've been able to have so many in a row!
- Wins vs. tournament teams (12): Florida+1, Harvard+5, @Memphis+10, Memphis+OT, Cincinnati+6, @Memphis+19, =Cincinnati+2, =St. Joseph's+OT, =Villanova+12, =Iowa St.+5, =Michigan St.+3, =Florida+10
- Wins vs. Sweet Sixteen (4): Florida+1, =Iowa St.+5, =Michigan St.+3, =Florida+10
- Wins vs. Final Four (2): Florida+1, =Florida+10
- Losses to tournament teams (5): Stanford-2, Louisville-12, @Cincinnati-5, @Louisville-33, =Louisville-10
- Other losses (3): @Houston-4, @SMU-9, SMU-9
Key Info: Connecticut had some huge games this year, including beating Florida 65-64. But their highest-rated games on the chart above were beating Detroit by 46, Houston by 37, South Florida by 43, and Memphis by 19. When the Huskies clamp down on you, they don't let up. Beating mostly mediocre teams by wide margins may have inflated their true worth, but during the tournament they've proven their mettle by beating 2-seed Villanova, 3-seed Iowa State, and 4-seed Michigan State—to go with their prior win over 1-seed Florida. Now they've defeated the Gators twice, with just Kentucky left in their sights.
Senior guard Shabazz Napier is the story of the team this year; he averages roughly 17 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists per game. He had 24, 8, and 6 in the overtime victory vs. St. Joe's. He led with 25 against Villanova. In the Sweet Sixteen game against Iowa State DeAndre Daniels was the star, hitting 10 of 15 shots for 27 points. UConn has been nailing their free throws at an uncanny rate during the tournament, and it even bailed them out after a bad 3-point shooting outing vs. Michigan State. The Huskies shot 21 of 22 from the line and Napier had 25 points. Against Florida Daniels starred again with 20 points and 10 rebounds.
- Wins vs. tournament teams (8): =Providence+14, Louisville+7, Tennessee+8, =Kansas St.+7, =Wichita St.+2, =Louisville+5, =Michigan+3, =Wisconsin+1
- Wins vs. Sweet Sixteen (5): Louisville+7, Tennessee+8, =Louisville+5, =Michigan+3, =Wisconsin+1
- Wins vs. Final Four (1): =Wisconsin+1
- Losses to tournament teams (6): =Michigan St.-4, @Baylor-5, @North Carolina-5, Florida-10, @Florida-19, =Florida-1
- Other losses (4): @Arkansas-OT, @LSU-5, Arkansas-OT, @South Carolina-5
Key Info: Kentucky's season was defined not by their wins but their losses. Beating Louisville was probably the highlight; on the downside, they lost to Florida three times, Michigan State and North Carolina, and to Arkansas twice, in overtime both times. The fact that the Michigan State (neutral) and North Carolina (road) losses were close, and the loss to the Gators in the SEC finale was a 1-point affair shows how good they are. Their regular-season record revealed their inexperience.
As with most modern Calipari teams, Kentucky is assembled of freshman, heralded as the greatest recruiting class ever. The team's top eight scorers are all freshmen, led by Julius Randle's 15.0 ppg and 10.5 rebounds. James Young and the Harrison twins all average in double figures, too. They've shown their inexperience this year—even the Fab Five had significant upperclassment contributing and starting much of the season—but things might be coming together, as witnessed by the three SEC tournament games (update: at this time I think that point's been proven).
Kentucky's first tournament game was on par with their recent play as they handled Kansas State; Randle had 19 and Aaron Harrison 18. Against Wichita State the Harrison twins combined for 39 points as they handed the Shockers their first loss. To reach the Elite Eight the Wildcats beat the Louisville Cardinals a 2nd time after trailing almost the entire game. They traded baskets with Michigan all game before Aaron Harrison hit a dagger 3 with seconds left to win it. Then it was another Big Ten 2-seed—and yet another Aaron Harrison dagger—in the 74-73 win over Wisconsin.
Game Analysis: Kentucky's play during the tournament has been amazingly consistent—they've been just a touch better than all of the high-profile team's they've defeated. Meanwhile UConn nearly lost to St. Joe's in the first game before pushing themselves to new heights over the last four games, where they beat a 2-, 3-, 4-, and 1-seed, and their wins over Villanova and Florida were by double digits. Kentucky has won their last four games by a total of 11 points.
Like many games we saw during the tournament, it's a great offense vs. great defense showdown. Kentucky's offense and UConn's D are in the top ten in efficiency (points per possession), while the other side of the court essentially features mediocre squads around the top-40 level.
Obviously, that side of the court is just as important to determining the victor, and should be just as competitive. You can't stop UConn without dealing with Napier and Daniels, no matter how good your offense is, and Kentucky's D might be diminished: Kentucky was already missing Willie Cauley-Stein and now Alex Poythress might be out after a celebration-dogpile injury to his knee. So far, however, none of the freshmen are hurt.
It's easier to explain why Kentucky's here than UConn. The Fab Five of Michigan in 1992 played almost the same season, losing a bunch of games during the year but putting it all together by the end of the season in time for a deep tournament run (they finished 2nd). Connecticut was a team that played its best against mediocre competition—until the tournament. The same thing happened in 2011 when the team "clicked" right before the Big East tournament, but this year's team hadn't put together a 5-game winning streak since early December. Neither had Kentucky, and neither deserved a lofty seed in the tournament.
What both teams have is a history of winning, and a recent history of winning NCAA championships. Kentucky won in 1996 and 1998, and again in 2012; UConn won in 1999, 2004, and 2011. On Monday night the rich will get richer, and leave every other program that might have had a Final Four once every 40 years cursing their names.
Kentucky by 2 1/2
Power rating: spread
Kentucky by 1.6
Game-comparisons: % Chance to win
For the third straight game, Kentucky is favored over a higher-seeded team. This time it's not as noteworthy, since by the championship game a 7-seed and an 8-seed are hardly different. But the first two—where UK was favored over 2-seed Michigan and 2-seed Wisconsin—reflects how quickly Kentucky regained its pre-season status in the tournament. The win over Louisville made believers out of the oddsmakers and they've been favored ever since.
The Strength power rating has the Wildcats in front by 1 or 2 points, too, and the majority of the game-comparisons for the season tilt their way.
Bottom line: Neither of these teams is playing like they did during the regular season, so it comes down to tournament performance. It's hard to judge that, too—Kentucky might have beaten better teams (maybe) but UConn beat a few of them more convincingly. But we know UK is going to play a great game. UConn either pushes themselves up again or falls short. The Fab Five fell short against a great Duke team, will these Kentucky freshmen meet the same fate? We think they'll win as UConn finally has another less-than-perfect game.
Final prediction: Kentucky 68, UConn 66
More previews: click here for the full 2014 NCAA tournament schedule.