X-Factors to Watch in the 2014 NCAA Championship Game
As UConn and Kentucky prepare to face off in history’s lowest-seeded NCAA title game, some aspects of how the game will proceed are easy to predict.
Shabazz Napier will excel. Aaron Harrison will get the ball in crunch time.
What will make the difference between winning and losing the championship, though, are the unknowns, the tipping points that could swing a close contest to either the Huskies or the Wildcats depending on how they play out.
One such mystery surrounds the newest addition to Kentucky’s rotation, freshman Marcus Lee. The little-used big man has made some highlight-reel plays in place of injured Willie Cauley-Stein, but can he turn his shot-blocking acumen from a SportsCenter curiosity into a legitimate weapon in a national title game?
Herein, we'll focus more on the Wildcats’ high-jumping backup, along with four other X-factors that will loom large in Monday night’s championship showdown.
Niels Giffey’s Rebounding
Three-point marksman Niels Giffey hasn’t been a major scoring threat in the NCAA tournament, but he’s helped keep the rest of the Huskies’ shooters supplied with ammunition.
After averaging just 3.8 rebounds per game in the regular season, the 6’7” senior is up to 6.2 in the Big Dance. That’s a far cry from languishing on the bench for the 2011 champs, and as Giffey told reporters on Sunday, he “understands what being here means now.”
James Young will likely draw the primary assignment on Giffey. The Kentucky freshman needs to make the most of his huge advantages in quickness and leaping ability.
If Giffey’s hot streak on the boards comes to an end on Monday, UConn’s championship hopes may well do the same.
Marcus Lee’s Defense
Even on Kentucky’s roster of NBA-bound talent, Marcus Lee’s athleticism stands out.
The 6’9”, 215-pounder has an explosive combination of leaping ability, length and quickness…that will be eminently familiar to UConn fans who have spent two years watching DeAndre Daniels.
With apologies to CBS’ Gregg Doyel, who tweeted “All Marcus Lee does is dunk. More per minute than anyone ever in the history of all time,” the youngster has also put in a solid defensive effort since replacing the injured Willie Cauley-Stein.
He may be the Wildcats’ best option to contain the streaking Daniels. If he can redirect a few putback attempts (or Shabazz Napier layups), he could turn the tide in a close game.
Andrew Harrison’s Fouls
Kentucky’s perimeter defense has had a myriad of issues in 2013-14, but one of the most persistent has been Andrew Harrison’s penchant for foul trouble.
The 6’6” freshman has repeatedly struggled to stay in front of quicker opposing point guards, resulting in early fouls and unwelcome downtime on the bench for the Kentucky floor leader. He nearly cost Kentucky the game against Wisconsin in the Final Four, fouling Traveon Jackson on a three-pointer with less than 20 seconds left in a tie game.
Against UConn, Harrison will need to be especially careful not to reach his average of 3.0 fouls per game too quickly.
Not only does Kentucky need his new and improved passing touch to help its offense click, but the Huskies’ incomparable free-throw shooters will eat the ‘Cats alive if Harrison helps put UConn in the bonus early.
Terrence Samuel’s Scoring
On the year, Terrence Samuel played less than nine minutes per game, but he’s had three appearances of 18 minutes or more in the NCAA tournament.
Although the 6’4” freshman is most noted for his defensive prowess, his March Madness debut has also seen him post the first two double-digit-scoring games of his career.
Kentucky has a fine bench in its own right, but the Wildcats can’t afford to let UConn get that kind of offensive production from its reserves.
If Samuel—who’s likely to be pressed into service again to help with the size of the Wildcats backcourt—gets in another offensive groove, it will be a huge advantage for the Huskies.
The Julius Randle-DeAndre Daniels Matchup
Julius Randle is the most valuable offensive weapon on Kentucky’s roster. DeAndre Daniels has gone from sidekick to star during a sensational NCAA tournament run. Something has to give, and what that will be is anybody’s guess.
Randle struggled to contain jump-shooting Sam Dekker against Wisconsin, but Daniels has been quiet on offense when he’s had to guard the likes of Villanova's JayVaughn Pinkston or Michigan State's Branden Dawson.
Whichever big man can force his style of play on the other—whether it’s Randle with his bruising low-post game or Daniels with his high-flying attacks off the dribble—will go a long way toward putting the championship trophy in his team’s hands.