There’s one game left. But before we talk about tonight’s NCAA final between UConn and Kentucky, let’s look back at the weekend.
1. Aaron Harrison is Robert Horry.
The most mind-blowing thing about Harrison’s streak of three straight game-winning 3s — other than “he’s a freshman” or “such a streak even exists” — is that he hasn’t been a lights-out shooter throughout the tournament. It would be easier to understand if Harrison were in a three-week zone during which everything he threw at the rim went in and his draft stock soared. But that’s not what has happened.
What makes no sense is that Harrison has been somewhere between “not bad” and “mediocre” over the last three games. If you exclude his game winners, Harrison would be shooting just 27 percent (7-of-26) from the field and averaging 8.7 points in Kentucky’s last three games. And, it should be pointed out, three of those seven made field goals came in the final eight minutes of the Michigan game. He had been 0-for-4 and scoreless until that point in that game.
In other words, Harrison lets his star teammates like James Young and Julius Randle do the heavy lifting and only makes his presence felt when the game is on the line, not unlike a certain Big Shot Rob with seven NBA championship rings.
2. It’s dumb to blame Josh Gasser for not guarding Harrison tightly enough on the game winner.
Greg Anthony immediately criticized Gasser after Harrison’s shot, arguing that Gasser shouldn’t have given a 3-point shooter a clean look in that situation. Steve Kerr did his best to interject with common sense,1 but it was too late and thousands of fans all over America accepted Anthony’s argument that Gasser made an inexcusable mistake. Captain Hindsight then said his work was done and flew into the night sky.
BONUS OBSERVATION: Kerr and Anthony are going to fight on air at some point, and it’s going to be the best.
Let’s think rationally about this. Say you’re Gasser. You have a two-point lead with 10 seconds left and you’re isolated 25 feet from the basket with a guy who is bigger and more athletic than you. Kentucky has made one 3 all game and it came less than one minute into the game. The Wildcats are also in the double bonus. Knowing all this, why would you crawl up into Harrison and make him put the ball on the floor? If he’s at the 3-point line, that’s a different story. But who in their right mind would pressure a ball handler that far from the basket in that situation? All it takes is your hand being in the wrong place as Harrison puts the ball on the floor for the refs to blow a whistle and send him to the line to tie the game, when his only other option was to jack up a shot from damn near out of bounds. Speaking of which, LOOK AT WHERE THE SHOT WAS FROM.2
“A 3 beats you but a 2 only sends it to overtime” is a popular argument for why Gasser made a mistake. If Harrison had the ball right at the 3-point line (or even the NBA 3-point line, for that matter), I’d agree. Two things to keep in mind, though: (1) Harrison was entirely out of the range from which defenders would expect an offensive player to pull the trigger, and (2) no player with the lead in that situation says, “I’m going to go out there and make them send the game to overtime.” Every player is playing to win right then and there. In Gasser’s mind, the best way to win was to make sure he didn’t get beat off the dribble.
If Harrison misses, we’re all talking about his terrible decision to settle for a desperation 3 when there was plenty of time to get a better look. Just because Harrison made the shot doesn’t mean his defender did something wrong. In fact, if you could’ve frozen time as Harrison released the ball and asked both coaches what they were thinking, Bo Ryan probably would’ve creepily let out an evil “bwahaha” laugh while John Calipari likely would’ve screamed “NOOOOOOOOO!!!”
Let Gasser off the hook. Wisconsin didn’t lose because of him. Wisconsin lost because Harrison carries melons in his jock and March Madness is a cold-hearted SOB.
3. We’re one game away from Cubs and Browns fans thinking premature “Champions” tattoos are the secret.
First there was the guy who got “XLVIII Champs” with a Seahawks logo tattooed on his arm six months before Seattle won its first Super Bowl in franchise history. And now there’s the Kentucky fan who got “2014 National Champions” tattooed on his calf on March 14, six days after the Wildcats were blown out at Florida.
If Kentucky wins tonight, that settles it — I’m definitely getting that back tattoo I’ve been thinking about getting: “TITUS WINS 2028 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION AND ALSO MAKES A TON OF MONEY AND GETS SUPER HOT CHICKS TO TALK TO HIM AND HAS LOTS OF FRIENDS AND EVERYONE THINKS HE’S REALLY COOL.”
4. Kentucky-Wisconsin didn’t settle the great cultural debate of our time.
This was supposed to be the game to decide which approach is better — Wisconsin’s reliance on upperclassmen who buy into an old-school system, or Kentucky’s “throw a bunch of ultra-talented one-and-dones together, get Drake to give them a pep talk, and cross your fingers it works out.” I was hoping a Wisconsin win would prove there are multiple paths to success in college basketball. Or that a Kentucky win would send the message to Ryan, “The game is passing you by, old man.” I got neither.
Instead, we were treated to a great game from start to finish that didn’t teach us much. On one hand, Kentucky won and it’s one game away from a second national title in three years. That’s pretty powerful support for the one-and-done approach. On the other hand, we all know that if Harrison had missed his game winner (which probably would happen seven out of 10 times) or if Traevon Jackson’s final shot had found the mark, then Wisconsin would have won and the “proof” would have been behind Ryan’s system. It would be foolish to pretend one way is better than the other when the game was literally decided by a few inches.
Then again, it doesn’t matter how the conversation might have been different if Jackson had scored the game winner. All that matters is that the shot didn’t go in, Kentucky advanced, and Wisconsin went home. For the moment, it remains impossible to say Wisconsin’s approach can win a national title, because the Badgers under Ryan haven’t actually won a national title. But on Saturday they sure showed they could put together a championship-caliber team.
5. James Young’s hair isn’t getting nearly enough attention.
Willie Cauley-Stein dyed his hair blond in December. Naturally, people talked about it. James Young did whatever the hell you call this to his hair against Alabama a month ago. People talked about it. Yet now that Young has styled his hair into Cheetos-colored twists for the NCAA tournament, nobody seems to care. A guy playing for a Final Four team decided to turn his hair into Cheetos during the most entertaining sporting event in the world and there hasn’t been a single meme about it? The only “James Young’s hair” parody account on Twitter has been inactive for more than a month? It’s like the Internet just gave up.
6. Wisconsin is going to be really good next season.
Assuming that the players who are expected to declare for the NBA draft do so, Arizona is my early pick for the 2015 preseason no. 1 team. But Wisconsin might not be far behind. The Buzzcuts’ only major loss next season will be Ben Brust. They’ll bring back far more than any other Final Four team from this season. And as much as the Buzzcuts will miss Brust, the best 3-point shooter in school history, Bronson Koenig (who turned down offers from Duke and North Carolina) showed on Saturday why some fans in Madison believe he might actually be an upgrade over Brust. Koenig, Jackson, Gasser, Sam Dekker, and Frank Kaminsky in the starting lineup with Nigel Hayes and Duje Dukan off the bench is a team that nobody in the Big Ten will be excited to face.
7. Florida’s and Wisconsin’s stars were no-shows.
It’s no coincidence that Florida and Wisconsin lost their games Saturday and that their star players (Scottie Wilbekin and Kaminsky) were nonfactors throughout the night.
Kaminsky wasn’t bad. He shot 4-of-7 and grabbed five boards, which was the same amount that Randle pulled down. Calipari had a week to prepare his players for Kaminsky after watching the Wisconsin big man destroy Arizona, and he had three McDonald’s All American big men to throw at Kaminsky on defense. It’s no surprise, then, that Kaminsky didn’t have another dominant game against Kentucky. Plus, Wisconsin isn’t the type of team that relies heavily on one star. Kaminsky would never jack up shots just because he played great in the previous round. He let his teammates get theirs and he took what the Wildcats’ defense gave him, which wasn’t much. This is how Ryan wants his guys to play, so it’s hard to fault Kaminsky. Still, after the way he played against Arizona and Baylor, I was left with a pants tent at the thought of Kaminsky taking on Kentucky’s big guys, and that tent was quickly disassembled.
Wilbekin, on the other hand, played his worst game of the season against UConn. For me, this was the single biggest shock of the tournament. The rest of Florida’s backcourt was awful against UConn, as was Keith Appling when Michigan State played the Huskies in the Elite Eight, so perhaps Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright deserve more credit than Wilbekin deserves blame. I don’t know. All I know is Wilbekin was 2-of-9 and it felt like all his misses were either air balls or shots that barely grazed the rim. He finished with four points, four fouls, three turnovers, one rebound, and one assist in 34 minutes.3 As one of my Twitter followers put it, Wilbekin was so uncharacteristically bad that if you didn’t know that Florida had been favored by seven, you might think he was shaving points.
I don’t doubt that Wilbekin’s leg cramps against UConn could have factored into his performance. But if his cramps were so bad that they caused him to play his worst game since his sophomore year, then he likely wouldn’t have played 34 minutes.
8. 2014 UConn isn’t 2011 UConn.
I’m retiring the comparison between the two UConn teams. Even if their stories remain very similar — facing Kentucky during the Final Four weekend, the highest combination of seeds in a title game — the 2014 group showed on Saturday how it differs from the 2011 Huskies. The theme of the 2011 team was Batman and Robin (Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb) carrying that team to a title, while the emergence of DeAndre Daniels has made the theme of 2014 more about the team’s group effort. At every step of the 2011 run, Kemba was the guy, Lamb was the no. 2, and a rotating cast of supporting players was no. 3. This year, though, there’s no telling who is going to be UConn’s best player during tournament games, and that has been a major key to its success.
A month ago, I thought UConn’s only chance to play for a national title was if Napier played three weeks of unstoppable hero ball. As it turns out, UConn’s defense is so dominant that the Huskies can beat the no. 1 team in the country by double digits with Napier attempting just six shots. I wanted so badly too see Shabazz morph into Kemba, and while he’s done just that at times during the tournament, UConn doesn’t need that from him in every game, with Daniels putting up double-doubles and Boatright averaging 13.6 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 1.6 steals in the tournament. This doesn’t necessarily mean that 2014 UConn is better than 2011 UConn, but it does mean that despite all the similarities between the two Huskies runs, the two teams remain fundamentally different.
9. The regular season obviously doesn’t matter.
UConn finished tied for third in the American Athletic Conference and lost eight times this season. Kentucky finished tied for second in the SEC and lost 10 times this season. UConn was swept by an SMU team that didn’t make the NCAA tournament. Kentucky was swept by an Arkansas team that didn’t make the NCAA tournament. Almost exactly one month ago (March 8), UConn lost at Louisville by 33 points. Two hours before that, Kentucky lost at Florida by 19. UConn lost on the road against 17-16 Houston. Kentucky lost on the road against 14-20 South Carolina. Neither Kentucky nor UConn won its conference tournament.
So, yeah, I guess you could say these weren’t the two best teams throughout the regular season.
10. The national championship matchup is a slap in the face to the NCAA’s “student-athlete” illusion.
A reader named Joe S. sent me an email Saturday night, not long after Kentucky beat Wisconsin. It’s pretty perfect:
Don’t Kentucky and UConn making the final basically put another nail in the coffin of the NCAA’s “student-athlete” fantasy? One team had such bad grades they were suspended from the postseason last year (and had a 10 percent graduation rate) and the other has five freshman starters who will most likely leave for the NBA after one season.
Points granted, but as long as the NCAA keeps referring to these basketball players as “student-athletes,” I’m sure no one will notice this farce. Speaking of which, look at this picture of the record-breaking crowd at AT&T Stadium and, without laughing, try to convince yourself that the NCAA’s primary interest is its “student-athletes.”
11. Sprint wins the most annoying commercial of the tournament.
Three weeks ago, Sprint’s ad wasn’t even on my radar. Now I have irrational hatred for hamsters, cartoon birds, brunch, and the French. I guess it’s fitting that one of the most dramatic tournaments in recent memory featured a surprising upset for the most annoying commercial crown.
No amount of drugs could make me understand this. At least Old Spice’s nonsense ads are funny. This commercial feels like it was made by teenagers who still have Myspace and describe themselves as “random.” I hate it, I don’t like it, and I also hate it.
12. The national championship should be phenomenal.
Thought: Since Shabazz Napier is playing Aaron Harrison, why don’t Connecticut and Kentucky just play 40 one-minute games instead of one 40-minute game to decide the national championship? That way, we can watch these two go back and forth with huge shots 39 extra times in the same night. That’s where we’re headed with this game, right? Isn’t it a foregone conclusion that Napier or Harrison will hit the game winner? Hell, it wouldn’t surprise me if they both somehow hit game winners. So why not put one minute on the clock, let Napier and Harrison do their thing, and then repeat until one team wins 21 times?
Jokes aside, this national title game has all the makings of a classic. Often in big games, you can point to a marquee matchup that seems likely to determine the outcome. Well, Monday night presents us with a smorgasbord of potentially pivotal matchups, not just one. If I had to pick one to watch, though, it’d be the power forward clash between Daniels and Randle. Both are playing the best basketball of their careers. Both are capable of carrying their teams to a national title. Daniels might be too much for Randle to guard on the perimeter, while Randle has obvious size and strength advantages. It’s very possible that neither one of these guys will be able to stop the other. Then again, Randle has guarded plenty of versatile big men, and Daniels has covered bigger forwards in almost every game he’s played, so it’s not like either player will be facing something he’s never seen before. I can see them going for 20 and 10 against each other; or, I can see them both struggling. Basically, I just can’t wait to see what happens.
And then there’s Napier and Boatright against the Harrison twins. Napier and Boatright have made some of the country’s best guards look like walk-ons in this tournament. The Harrison twins are playing good-but-not-great basketball (except for Aaron’s huge shots). One might assume, then, that UConn will dominate the backcourt battle. But that’s before you factor in the James Young–Niels Giffey matchup. Can Giffey guard Young? More importantly, will Giffey guard Young? With Young being Kentucky’s best perimeter scorer, it might make more sense for Giffey to guard Andrew Harrison and have either Napier or Boatright guard Young. But a switch like that would mean losing some of UConn’s pressure on the opposing team’s ball handlers, which has been the key to its defense all season. With Andrew Harrison being Kentucky’s primary ball handler, Kevin Ollie might prefer to stick with the natural matchups in hopes that Napier and Boatright can rattle Kentucky’s freshmen. If that’s what happens, I’ll be putting an enormous circle around the Giffey-Young matchup.
Considering all the variables, here’s my official prediction: Kentucky will score some points, UConn will also score some points, and everyone watching will be the night’s big winners.