Sunday, April 6, 2014

Overlooked But Not Outdone

They said that UConn was too inconsistent, flawed in the frontcourt, and not talented enough. They gave them no shot against St. Joseph, Villanova, Michigan State, and Florida, but long time UConn fans know that this is exactly how UConn likes it. They relish the underdog role. They thrive on the disrespect and now they stand on the precipice of an impressive 4th national title. It didn’t look good from the start. Florida jumped out to an early lead, hitting several jumpers right off the bat and for the first time in the tournament, UConn had one of their slow starts. The Gators built up a 16 to 4 lead and looked ready to put the Huskies away before the half ended, but UConn had other plans and it started by the insertion of an unheralded freshman. Terrence Samuel came in and it changed the flow of the game. The lanes opened and they began driving and dishing to open shooters. Daniels and Boatright knocked down jumpers while Samuel and Giffey found ways to score inside. They clawed back into the game and the defense began to tighten up. Florida had a hard time rotating the ball and kicking out to open shooters. The half ended with UConn holding on to a one possession lead.

UConn came out in the second half in attack mode and despite the disparity of calls in the paint, they built up their lead to four to five possessions on the backs of their inside scoring. The defense, the best in the tournament, frustrated Florida. Kevin Ollie did a masterful job in substitutions and had to deal with his frontcourt in foul trouble throughout this game. While Florida did win the offensive glass battle, UConn held their own on the overall boards, which was their biggest concern. With the defense stifling Florida, UConn’s offense broke apart Florida’s unheralded defense in the second half for one 3-pointer, 7 lay-ups, a floater, 2 jumpers and 3 dunks. This team is playing at such an elite level right now and are winning games in different fashions, which a team needs to do to reach this level, but the one thing that has been there from the tip has been their defense and if they continue to play at this level, they have a great chance to win their fourth title.

Napier didn’t have his jumper in this game but he didn’t need it. His biggest contribution was on his dribble penetration, passing, defense, and ability to beat the press. He had several key steals that immediately led to points on the other end. He did sink two 3-pointers, a lay-up, and hit 4 of 4 from the line but he didn’t need to be aggressive because others were getting open and knocking down shots.

Boatright has been nothing short of fantastic in this tournament and it hadn’t changed in this game. He had a slow start offensively, hitting only a 3-pointer, but he skied for several big time boards and did a fantastic job of fronting Florida’s guards. He started getting things going in the second half. He had a dunk, 2 lay-ups, a jumper, and hit 2 of 2 from the line. The biggest adjustment for him has been his ability to score around the basket and knock down mid-range jumpers. If he consistently hits those elbow jumpers, he will be unstoppable.

Talking about unstoppable, Daniels has been nothing short of incredible. He not only is knocking down 3-pointers, but is sprinkling in an unguardable turnaround jumper, a monster dunk, a jumper, and lay-up after lay-up. On top of all that, he is banging for boards and blocking shots on the defensive end. UConn fans have seen this from Daniels in fits and starts throughout the season, but he has strung together several games in a row of this top tier performances. This next game will be a huge test for him. He will be going up against superior athletic wings that have given him problems in the past. If he can be as effective against Kentucky as he has been against every other team in this tournament, then he might be playing his last game in a UConn jersey.

Giffey’s jumper just isn’t dropping for him, but he can’t go into a shell because of it. He is too good of a shooter to stop putting them up. The good sign is that he is making plays in other areas, like crashing the boards for put backs and running the court for breakout dunks.  He is also playing very good defense. Kromah has been in a mini slump. He had a horrible pass and found himself on the bench. He needs to keep himself involved though, because he could be that breakout player against Kentucky. The true X-factor for this team has been Samuel. There is something about him that changes the tempo of this team. They went from stagnant to attack mode when he came in. He only made two lay-ups, but his energy and ability to break the press allowed UConn to change the momentum of this game.

The Frontcourt had to deal with a quick whistle from the referees and they weren’t calling it the same on both ends of the court. Brimah had a dunk, a lane violation, and a block, but never got into the flow of the game. Nolan also had a hard time staying on the court for extended periods of time. He had a costly turnover and a block, but like Brimah, he kept coming in and out of the game. Olander had a hard time on defense and was manhandled down low. Luckily for them, Daniels, Napier, Giffey, and Boatright picked up the rebounds or this game could’ve been different. They will need to do a much better job against Kentucky. The Wildcats are probably salivating at getting to play against them and they need to play at their best to have UConn in this game.

It is still hard to believe the run that UConn is on right now. Everyone is playing their role to perfection and the defense is so in sync. The rotations, ball denial, and close outs are a beauty to watch. They have stifled every opponent in this tournament and they need to do the same to one last opponent. This Kentucky team is gelling as well. They are so talented across the board and their biggest weapon is UConn’s biggest weakness. So it is imperative that UConn’s frontcourt hold their own and not back down. On paper it looks like a miss match, but that is exactly how UConn likes it. Let them be overlooked, because that seems to be the fuel that has guided this core group to where they are right now which is an unprecedented second National Championship.

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