Andrew Harrison was set up to be the fall guy if Kentucky had not beaten Wisconsin in Saturday's national semifinals. The UK freshman had taken a questionable three-pointer with the game tied and 50 seconds left. Harrison then left his feet defensively when Wisconsin's Traevon Jackson hoisted a three-pointer, fouling the Badgers guard and sending him to the foul line with 16.7 seconds left. Don't forget, however, that Harrison scored seven of UK's nine points in one second-half stretch to keep the Cats in the game during a Wisconsin surge.
Had it not been for Creighton's Doug McDermott, Connecticut's Shabazz Napier (17.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.9 assists) might have been 2014 National Player of the Year. The 6-foot-1 senior from Roxbury, Mass., was patiently effective against Florida in the semifinals (12 points, six assists). He is capable of carrying UConn offensively, as his 25 points against Michigan State in the round of eight and 25 vs. Villanova in the round of 32 attest.
Over the course of three weeks, Aaron Harrison has made himself nationally synonymous with "clutch shooting." The Kentucky freshman hit the last-minute, go-ahead basket in UK's victory over Louisville (round of 16) and the last-second game-winners against Michigan (Midwest Region finals) and Wisconsin (Final Four). If the national championship game comes down to one UK offensive possession, surely UConn Coach Kevin Ollie will make someone else beat him.
With Ryan Boatright (12.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.4 assists) joining Shabazz Napier, UConn essentially starts two point guards. The defensive pressure of Napier and Boatright, a 6-foot junior from Aurora, Ill., all but swallowed up the experienced, talented backcourts of Michigan State and Florida in the past two NCAA rounds.
Pressed into greater importance by the ankle injury to Willie-Cauley-Stein, Kentucky 7-foot freshman Dakari Johnson has hit a combined eight of 11 field goals in wins over Michigan and Wisconsin. His big-body defensive presence helped UK control Wisconsin star center Frank Kaminsky, too.
Phillip Nolan, a 6-10, 212-pound sophomore from Milwaukee, is a role player (3.5 points and 2.4 rebounds). In UConn's NCAA Tournament run, Nolan scored seven points against St. Joseph's, had four vs. Michigan State and one against Florida — and has gone scoreless in the other two games.
By Julius Randle standards, the Kentucky freshman from Dallas had a so-so game (16 points, five rebounds) in his return to his hometown (well, hometown area) against Wisconsin in the national semifinals. It was the first time the 6-9, 250-pounder failed to produce a double-double since the SEC Tournament finals loss to Florida. My guess is Randle will play big Monday night.
The NCAA Tournament performance of DeAndre Daniels (17.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg compared to season averages of 13.2 ppg and 6 rpg) is the biggest difference between the UConn of the NCAA tourney and the UConn of the regular season. The 6-9 junior from Los Angeles had 20 points and 10 rebounds against Florida in the semifinals and 27 points and 10 boards vs. Iowa State in the round of 16.
James Young got Kentucky started against Wisconsin with nine first-half points (on his way to 17 for the game). The 6-6 freshman from Rochester Hills, Mich., has made 18 of his last 35 field-goal attempts over four games. However, teams have had ample success driving the basketball at Young's defense.
Connecticut's Niels Giffey bounced back from a 2-for-10 (0-for-5 three-pointers) shooting performance against Michigan State in the round of eight with a solid performance (11 points, four rebounds, 4-for-7 field-goal shooting) against Florida. The 6-7 senior from Berlin, Germany, played but failed to score against Kentucky in UConn's 56-55 win over the Cats in the 2011 national semifinals.
Even without the injured Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky has gotten valuable contributions from its reserves. Since going 1-for-4 from the floor against Kansas State in UK's NCAA opener, sophomore forward Alex Poythress is 12-for-13. Freshman big man Marcus Lee followed up his 10-point performance against Michigan with four points in 10 minutes against Wisconsin. Freshman guard Dominique Hawkins has given Kentucky a defensive boost in the past three games and scored his first field goal since Jan. 8 Saturday night against the Badgers.
Connecticut freshman guard Terrence Samuel is "coming on late," as they say, having scored a career-high 11 points against Villanova in the round of 32 and hitting both his field-goal tries in Saturday's meeting with Florida. Freshman center Amida Brimah, a 7-foot shot blocker from Ghana, has started 17 games this season and averages 4.2 points and 3 rebounds. Senior forward Tyler Olander (1.8 ppg, 1.2 rpg) started against UK as a true freshman in the 2011 Final Four.
Both teams enter the national title game with every reason to think they have been kissed by destiny. UK is on a historic roll of last-second victories against formidable foes. Connecticut rallied back from the dead in its round-of-64 meeting with St. Joseph's, then won in overtime. UConn has since beaten the trendy pick to win the tournament, Michigan State, and the NCAA overall No. 1 seed, Florida. Kentucky has won 11 straight NCAA tourney games. The last team to beat UK — Connecticut in the 2011 national semifinals.