Everything You Need to Know About the 2014 NCAA Basketball Championship Game
Pick whatever hackneyed cliche you want, and it won't even begin to describe the anticipation for the 2014 NCAA championship game.
From a national championship point of view, No. 7 Connecticut and No. 8 Kentucky have been the two most successful programs over the past 18 seasons, each winning three titles.
It only seems fitting that this game should determine which has been better over the past two decades.
By now, you know about the stars. Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels will be key for Connecticut; Julius Randle and Aaron Harrison will be the main pieces in Kentucky's puzzle.
But who are the X-factors and the underrated players who will truly determine the outcome of the game? And what are the biggest storylines coming out of this monumental matchup?
Let's take a look back at the journeys these two blue bloods have taken to get to this point and try to identify who will emerge victorious.
Be sure to include your predictions in the comments. Anyone who correctly prognosticates the final score and the Most Outstanding Player gets 200 brownie points and a hearty "Way to go!"
Record: 31-8, No. 7 seed in East Region.
Path to Arlington: 89-81 (OT) over No. 10 Saint Joseph's, 77-65 over No. 2 Villanova, 81-76 over No. 3 Iowa State, 60-54 over No. 4 Michigan State, 63-53 over No. 1 Florida.
Biggest Strength: Ranked No. 4 in the country in free-throw percentage and have shot 86.7 percent in the tournament.
How They Got Here
Though they are the higher of the two seeds, the Huskies are unquestionably the bigger surprise of the two teams still standing.
The potential was always there, but Connecticut never could quite put it all together until the tournament.
The Huskies had some impressive victories throughout the regular season—most notably, the 65-64 buzzer-beating victory over Florida on Dec. 2—but they always seemed to be a few cards shy of a full deck.
When DeAndre Daniels had a great game, Ryan Boatright struggled. If Boatright was hitting shots, Niels Giffey wasn't. And once in a blue moon, those three guys would score in double figures and Shabazz Napier would have difficulty getting going.
Perhaps most frustrating of all was Omar Calhoun. The fact that you probably haven't even heard that name in the tournament is a testament to how far he has fallen.
As a freshman last season, Calhoun averaged 11.1 points per game and was expected to be a pivotal member of the rotation. Through Connecticut's first three games this year, he was averaging 26.5 points per 40 minutes.
But it was fools' gold. For a while, Calhoun kept playing, but the shots weren't falling. He hasn't scored a single point in his last 66 minutes, which spans two months and 17 games. If not for his last name, he would transfer this offseason to the surprise of nobody.
With Calhoun almost entirely out of the picture and Boatright and Daniels playing more consistently well than ever before, the Huskies have been unstoppable.
And that's with Giffey—a 52.5 percent three-point shooter during the regular season—making just 1-of-11 triples over the last four games. If he decides to do what Luke Hancock did for Louisville last year and rediscover his stroke in the championship game, best of luck, Kentucky.
The Huskies have never exactly been renowned for their defensive prowess, but they are ranked 10th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency and have stepped up their game as of late. In the Elite Eight, Michigan State committed 16 turnovers against Connecticut, leading to 18 points for the Huskies. Against Florida, Connecticut turned 11 turnovers into 13 points.
With Connecticut's offense clicking and its defense humming, Kentucky could be in for quite the battle.
Record: 29-10, No. 8 seed in Midwest Region.
Path to Arlington: 56-49 over No. 9 Kansas State, 78-76 over No. 1 Wichita State, 74-69 over No. 4 Louisville, 75-72 over No. 2 Michigan, 74-73 over No. 2 Wisconsin.
Biggest Strength: Ranked No. 2 in offensive rebounding percentage.
Achilles' Heel: Commit more turnovers than they force, ranking 303rd in defensive turnover percentage.
How They Got Here
From Jan. 14 through March 8, Kentucky had a 10-6 record.
The Wildcats lost twice in overtime to Arkansas, fell twice by double digits to Florida, inexplicably lost to 14-20 South Carolina and had just one win against a team that made the NCAA tournament—an eight-point victory at home against a Tennessee squad that wouldn't have made the Big Dance if there were still 64 tournament teams instead of 68.
In no way, shape or form did they look like a team capable of making a deep run.
But then something clicked.
Once an underachieving team that allowed inferior opponents to eke out wins, Kentucky evolved into the juggernaut it was supposed to be from the get-go.
Once a 30 percent three-point shooter, Kentucky's tweaked dribble-drive offense allowed Aaron Harrison to transform into Stephen Curry, shooting 51.1 percent from behind the arc over his last eight games.
Only Kentucky could somehow become stronger by losing a 7'0" Willie Cauley-Stein, who averaged 10.2 rebounds and 4.8 blocks per 40 minutes.
Will the magic run out?
In a season where defense reigned supreme, Kentucky has somehow won four consecutive games while allowing the opposition to shoot 49.3 percent from the field and average 72.5 points per game.
Not many teams can go bucket for bucket with Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels and live to tell about it.
Storyline No. 1: Just how much of an evil genius is John Calipari?
Heading into the Final Four, we were all worshiping Florida's Billy Donovan. Six Elite Eights and three Final Fours in a span of nine years? Wow! What a legend!
But we all conveniently ignored the fact that Calipari has now been to seven Elite Eights and four Final Fours in the past nine years.
Sure, that second-place finish in 2008 has been officially expunged from the record books. However, you can't take away the money Memphis made during that run, or the fact that Calipari transformed Memphis from a team sputtering to .500 for more than a decade into a perennial threat to make a deep tournament run.
We hate Calipari for the same reason we hate the person who uses the rocket launcher in Halo, or whatever the kids are playing these days.
Is it cheating that Calipari is taking advantage of the NBA's insistence on making everyone play at least one year in college? With the exception of the scandals involving Marcus Camby and Derrick Rose, no, not at all. But it almost feels like cheating to the fans of teams with coaches trying to "win the right way."
Whether or not Kentucky wins Monday night, Calipari has made it abundantly clear that it's possible to win it all with a bunch of one-and-done players. Schools like Duke and North Carolina have finally taken note and have begun dipping their toes into that well.
Perhaps the more interesting storyline down the road is how much longer Calipari stays at Kentucky now that other teams are adopting his strategy.
Storyline No. 2: If voting for the Wooden Award didn't open until after the tournament, how different would the final standings have been?
Don't kid yourself; Doug McDermott would have won by a country mile no matter when they voted.
But Shabazz Napier in sixth place? Julius Randle not even a semifinalist? Come on, now.
If Connecticut wins it all and they voted again Tuesday, you'd have to think Napier would finish in second place.
Storyline No. 3: How much can a great tournament run actually increase a player's draft stock?
NBA scouts never seem to concern themselves with early exits. Should they all eventually declare for the draft, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid will all still be drafted in the top five, despite failing to advance to the second weekend of the tournament.
But at the other end of the spectrum, it's pretty apparent that the professional teams have a tendency to fall head over heels in love with the key cogs on championship teams. Remember when North Carolina won it all in 2005 and Marvin Williams was the No. 2 overall draft pick and both Sean May and Rashad McCants were lottery picks?
Teams have certainly been smarter since then. However, Louisville's Gorgui Dieng wasn't even a projected first-round pick before last year's tournament, according to our Jonathan Wasserman, but he was taken 21st overall after the Cardinals' championship run.
One has to wonder just how much players like Aaron Harrison, Julius Randle and DeAndre Daniels have improved their draft stock with five incredible games. If Kentucky wins it all and Randle explodes for 22 points and 14 rebounds, could he catapult into the top three? Could Daniels jump into the first round and become an immediate Sixth Man of the Year for a contender?
Storyline No. 4: Will we see an influx of former NBA players becoming first-time head coaches at major programs?
Iowa State was nothing special when it hired Fred Hoiberg. Led by Greg McDermott, the Cyclones had finished their last four seasons with a sub-.500 record. But "The Mayor" came in and turned things around almost overnight.
Hoiberg had never been a head coach before. After a 10-year career in the NBA and a couple of years in the Timberwolves' front office, he went back to his alma mater in 2010. And were it not for Georges Niang's injury, we just might be talking about Iowa State this weekend.
Kevin Ollie took over the head coaching position at Connecticut amid turmoil.
Jim Calhoun had retired suddenly after the Huskies were slapped with a one-year tournament ban for low APR scores, and there was nonstop unrest over the future state of the Big East conference. Yet, Ollie swooped in just a few years removed from playing for the Thunder and led the Huskies to a championship game.
With that recent track record of success, why wouldn't teams with coaching vacancies reach out to guys like Ray Allen, Derek Fisher and Steve Nash when they finally decide to call it a career?
I don't know about you, but if I were a top recruit looking to advance to the NBA after just one season, I'd be infinitely more intrigued by a visit from Fisher or Nash than a college coaching legend like Jim Boeheim or Roy Williams.
If Larry Brown can get Emmanuel Mudiay to come to Southern Methodist, imagine what Fisher or Nash could do for a perennially underachieving major conference program like Georgia Tech or USC.
Stars to Watch
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut
Tournament stats: 21.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 4.8 APG, 2.4 SPG
Napier had just six field-goal attempts against Florida on Saturday night, but he was still one of the most impactful players in the game. He finished the night with 12 points, six assists, four steals and three rebounds.
That's what makes Napier the overwhelming favorite to be named the Most Outstanding Player in the 2014 NCAA tournament. It's one thing to shoot a team to the title game; it's another altogether to be able to consistently will your team to victory by stuffing the stat sheets.
We heard for years how great of a team leader Aaron Craft was for Ohio State with his court vision and tough defense. Give Craft a better nose for rebounds and a jump shot that's actually reliable, and you've got Napier.
Julius Randle, Kentucky
Tournament stats: 15.8 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.8 SPG
Despite a twisted ankle in the first half, Randle still scored 16 points and grabbed five rebounds against Wisconsin. It was the first time in the tournament that he failed to record a double-double, but it also may have been his guttiest effort of the month.
Randle is simply a machine in the paint. If Florida's Patric Young was able to get the bulk of Connecticut's frontcourt into foul trouble, Randle could have them all fouled out by halftime.
DeAndre Daniels, Connecticut
Tournament stats: 17.6 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 0.8 SPG
Make no bones about it, Daniels has been the biggest X-factor of the entire tournament. His ability to consistently produce while creating a mismatch for the opposition has been fun to watch.
When he wanted to get to the rim against Florida, there was nothing the Gators could do about it. And Florida was arguably the best defense the country had to offer this season.
Aaron Harrison, Kentucky
Tournament stats: 14.4 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 0.8 APG
Harrison's numbers aren't quite as ridiculous as these other three guys, but a player can't possibly hit all of the clutch shots that Harrison has and not be listed on the stars to watch.
After Harrison's last act of heroism, Wisconsin's Josh Gasser told reporters, "He was pretty deep out there. He hadn't really looked to pull up for a shot the entire game. I saw him start to rise up, and I tried to contest the best I could. I thought I did a good job, but he made another good shot."
Underrated Players to Watch
Marcus Lee, Kentucky
Tournament stats: 26 minutes, 14 points, nine rebounds, three blocks
As Kenny Smith joked during the postgame coverage of Kentucky's Elite Eight win over Michigan, Lee might be giving a whole new meaning to "one-and-done" by developing into an NBA-worthy prospect in just one game.
Lee was a nobody for the final four months of the season. The freshman had a couple of nice early games against UNC-Asheville and Texas-Arlington, but he hadn't scored more than two points in a game since Nov. 19. He exploded for 10 points and seven offensive rebounds against Michigan and had a couple of key plays against Wisconsin on Saturday.
With Willie Cauley-Stein out and Alex Poythress likely at less than 100 percent, expect to get another healthy dose of Lee in the championship game.
Amida Brimah, Connecticut
Tournament stats: 92 minutes, 17 points, 10 rebounds, six blocks
Brimah is one of the best shot-blockers in the country, but he has had difficulty staying on the court all season due to foul trouble.
Kentucky will doubtlessly use his aggressiveness against him, attacking him repeatedly until he is inevitably stuck on the bench for good. But how many shots he is able to block or alter before that point could be a major factor.
Dominique Hawkins, Kentucky
Tournament stats: 37 minutes, two points, seven personal fouls
Trying to find underrated players for Kentucky is like trying to find overrated players on Grambling State, but Hawkins certainly fits the mold.
The freshman point guard has rapidly evolved into John Calipari's go-to guy when one of the Harrison twins is displaying anything less than positive body language. Hawkins played a grand total of 31 minutes in Kentucky's 19 games before the Sweet 16, but he has registered at least 11 minutes in each of the Wildcats' last three games.
Granted, he didn't do much of anything with those minutes other than commit fouls. But if anyone on Kentucky is going to come off the bench and pull a "Spike Albrecht"—otherwise known as more than doubling one's previous career high in points in the national championship game—look for Hawkins to be that player.
Terrence Samuel, Connecticut
Tournament stats: 71 minutes, 25 points, seven rebounds, four assists
Like Hawkins for Kentucky, Samuel has been a surprising recipient of quality minutes. Only once during the regular season did Samuel play more than eight minutes in a game decided by fewer than 24 points, but he has played at least 18 minutes in three of Connecticut's last four games.
He doesn't need to be a game-changer, but it would be a huge help for Connecticut if Samuel is able to provide 10 to 15 minutes of not-terrible play while Shabazz Napier or Ryan Boatright recharges his batteries on the bench.
Connecticut's Blueprint to Beating Kentucky
It won't be easy, but if Connecticut can do these four things, the Huskies will be the 2014 national champions.
1. Embrace the Small Lineup
If you thought Phillip Nolan, Amida Brimah and Tyler Olander were mismatched against Florida's frontcourt, wait until you see what happens when they're in the game against Dakari Johnson and Julius Randle.
Obviously, the Huskies have to do something on the defensive end to try to stifle Kentucky's big men, but they simply don't have the strength in the paint to go blow for blow with those behemoths.
Ryan Boatright, Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels will almost certainly play 115 of Connecticut's 200 (regulation) minutes—provided the officials allow them to do so. If the Huskies give the bulk of those other 85 minutes to Niels Giffey, Lasan Kromah and Terrence Samuel, they just might have the quickness and perimeter defense to win the game.
2. Feed DeAndre Daniels
Daniels is unquestionably the most versatile player in this game.
Before Alex Poythress' knee injury, the logical move for John Calipari would have been to have Poythress shadow Daniels as much as possible, since they are both tall and freakishly athletic. But if Poythress is limited at all, Kentucky may not have an answer for Daniels.
With James Young and the Harrison twins likely guarding Napier, Boatright and Giffey, that leaves an intriguing battle between Daniels and Randle. For as much of a rebounding vacuum as he is, Randle isn't exactly a defensive wizard.
Wichita State's Cleanthony Early had 31 points against Kentucky, and he's the closest thing to Daniels that Kentucky has seen in the tournament.
3. Get Open Looks for Ryan Boatright
The Huskies shooting guard hasn't been shooting all that well over the past six weeks. Despite Saturday's 5-of-9 effort against Florida, Boatright is shooting just 33.6 percent from the field over his last 13 games.
But he is improving, and he has averaged 1.42 points per field-goal attempt in the tournament. By comparison, Randle has averaged 1.36 points per field-goal attempt for Kentucky, and he's well in the running for Most Outstanding Player of the tournament.
It's not difficult to show how important Boatright has been for Connecticut. Running a couple of plays designed to get him open three-pointers could make a world of difference.
4. Don't Rely Too Heavily on Shabazz Napier's Shooting
This is more of a corollary to No. 2 and No. 3 than its own entity, but it's worth mentioning anyway.
Napier is a fantastic scorer, but Connecticut isn't as good when he is trying to carry the load all by himself. He attempted 15 or more field goals in a game nine times this season. The Huskies lost four of those games and needed overtime to win two of the others. Only once in those nine games did they win by more than two points in regulation.
Of course, this is a "chicken or the egg" situation. In several of those games, Napier only got to 15 field-goal attempts because Connecticut was playing from behind and needed him to be Superman.
Still, the fact remains that this is a much better team when he is getting others involved in the scoring as much as himself.
Connecticut is 15-1 this season when Napier has six or more assists and 10-1 when he has three or more steals.
As he proved against Florida on Saturday night, Napier can greatly affect the outcome of the game without doing a Kobe Bryant impersonation.
Kentucky's Blueprint to Beating Connecticut
It won't be easy, but if Kentucky can do these four things, the Wildcats will be the 2014 national champions.
1. Run the Offense Through Julius Randle
Saint Joseph's shot 60.6 percent from two-point range against Connecticut. Florida's Patric Young scored a season-high 19 points against the Huskies frontcourt. Iowa State's Dustin Hogue shot 15-of-18 from inside the arc, scoring 34 points to best his previous career high (22) by more than 50 percent.
Not only will it never, ever make sense that Michigan State attempted 29 three-pointers against Connecticut, but can you even imagine the carnage if John Calipari told his players to make sure Randle gets a touch on every single possession?
Bill Walton holds the all-time record for points in a national championship game. He scored 44 points against Memphis State in the 1973 title game.
Call me crazy, but that record could be in jeopardy.
2. Do Not Run the Offense Through Andrew Harrison
For reasons unbeknownst to all of us, Harrison has gone back to shooting the ball way too much. He attempted 14 shots against Wisconsin, which was three more than any other Wildcat.
The key to Kentucky's turnaround was that he became a facilitator of the offense as opposed to one of the primary scoring threats.
On the season, Harrison is just a 36.8 percent shooter from the field. He has been even worse over the past three games, shooting 29.7 percent while averaging 12.3 field-goal attempts per game.
Despite scoring 20 points on just nine field-goal attempts against Wichita State, Harrison is averaging 1.12 points per field-goal attempt in the tournament. Factor in his 5.2 free-throw attempts per game, and it's almost hard to believe he has been that inefficient from the field.
If Connecticut is leaving him all alone at the rim, by all means, capitalize on those chances. Harrison was 3-of-5 on layups against Wisconsin. However, he was just 1-of-9 on jump shots that really haven't been there for most of the season.
Any time Harrison pulls up for a jumper, Kevin Ollie has to consider it a successful possession.
3. Crash the Glass, as Usual
Thus far in the tournament, Kentucky has a rebounding margin of plus-45. The Wildcats have 66 offensive rebounds and have grabbed at least 10 in every game.
Over their last four games, they are shooting 50.2 percent from the field and have grabbed 43.8 percent of possible offensive rebounds. As a result, they are averaging 1.23 points per possession during that stretch, despite making a three-pointer on just 8.6 percent of their possessions.
To help put that number in perspective, Creighton led the country at 1.205 points per possession over the course of the season, but the Bluejays made a three-pointer on 15.6 percent of their possessions.
The efficiency with which Kentucky is both making field goals and grabbing offensive rebounds is astounding.
4. Get to the Free-Throw Line
Kentucky attempted just 21 free throws against Wisconsin and only 11 against Michigan. In two full games, the Wildcats just barely eclipsed their season average of 30.1 free-throw attempts per game.
To be fair, those games were against the two least foul-prone teams in the country.
Connecticut has been pretty good about not fouling in the tournament, but its opponents are still attempting 18.8 free throws per game—a number being helped by the grand total of eight free throws that Michigan State attempted against the Huskies.
Randle is something of a professional when it comes to drawing fouls, averaging 6.6 per 40 minutes. And if Kentucky is getting him the rock as often as it should, that number may be twice as high Monday night.
The Kiss of Death
Welcome to the portion of the article where I make it abundantly clear why I write about sports rather than gamble on them.
After 12 slides of analysis in the Final Four preview, I picked Florida and Wisconsin to meet for the national championship. You could say my crystal ball needs some tuning, but Florida went 0-of-4 in its blueprint to a title, completely disregarding Michael Frazier II over the latter 75 percent of the game and getting virtually nothing out of its two point guards.
However, I never felt great about either of those national semifinals. Relying on three-point shooting in one game and fouls called in the other? No wonder my bracket ends up in the garbage after the first weekend of the tournament.
I feel confident about this pick, though. Kentucky is just too strong. Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson against Connecticut's frontcourt is about as unfair as it gets.
Maybe the Huskies will have a chance if they're shooting 60 percent from three-point range, but I just don't see how they'll be able to slow down the Wildcats on the other end of the court.
Oddsshark.com has Kentucky as a 2.5-point favorite, winning by a score of 68.5-66. It could be right about Connecticut's score, but that's way too modest a projection for a Kentucky team that hasn't been held to fewer than 74 points in its last four games.
I like Kentucky to win by a score of 79-68, with Randle recording 32 points and 13 rebounds to earn the Most Outstanding Player award.
And thus ensures the first national championship in Kevin Ollie's coaching career.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.