In the left regional is a less unthinkable but still unexpected matchup between the college basketball powerhouses Kentucky Wildcats and Connecticut Huskies. It's unexpected because, though both teams have storied histories and top flight coaches, neither was expected to make it to this stage. Kentucky, though ranked for the whole season, lost a boatload of talent to the 2010 NBA Draft and relied on freshmen and role players in '11. UConn, meanwhile, did not receive a single vote in the ESPN preseason top 25 back in November after graduating Stanley Robinson, Gavin Edwards, and Jerome Dyson. On the resilient back of Kemba Walker, the Huskies leapfrogged over 50 or so teams with a strong showing in the EA Sports Maui Invitational.
The only time these teams faced each other this season was in that Maui Invitational, where Kemba owned UK freshman Brandon Knight to the tune of 29 points and a 17-point victory. Knight went an abysmal 3-15 from the field and turned the ball over 5 times. A full season has gone by since that meeting, and the freshmen on both teams have matured a great deal thanks to coaches John Calipari and Jim Calhoun.
UK has beaten all kinds of teams on their road to the Final Four, including the top two seeds in their region, Ohio State and North Carolina. But they haven't faced any point guard with this kind of playmaking ability since they faced Kemba in Maui. While Kendall Marshall, Erving Walker, Aaron Craft, and Trevor Relaford are nice players, neither the tournament teams nor the SEC teams the Wildcats have matched up against contain the sort of player Kemba Walker has become. And though Brandon Knight is a terrific freshman, he will be overmatched this game and, if they don't help on Kemba, he'll make them pay.
A few things have changed for UConn since the Maui Invitational but it's mainly been the development of Jeremy Lamb that has Huskie fans excited. The 6'5 freshman is going on nine straight games of double-digits in points, while shooting 55% from the field and forcing defenders to stay honest on him. Shabazz Napier has also become an integral part of this team's success off the bench. He's played at least 20 minutes per game during the tournament, which allows Kemba to play off the ball and focus on setting up his own shot. Napier has a 14/3 assist to turnover ratio in the tournament.
If Walker and Knight is the most important matchup, Alex Oriakhi and Josh Harrelson is an extremely close second. I'd also throw Charles Okwandu and Eloy Vargas into that mix as well. Both teams have given up an average of over 10 rebounds in the past three games of the tournament, which is a direct knock on the middling big men of both teams. While Oriakhi has the most potential of all of them, he often finds himself lost on the court, making mistakes he should have learned from last year. Harrelson is not the most talented player but sculpted himself into a hard worker on the court with a nice outside shot. He can be out-toughed inside and may find himself in foul trouble if Kemba commits to driving the basketball.
UK is going to have to match power with power -- and for Calipari, that means Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. While Darius Liggins and Darius Miller represent the outside shooting and defensive studs, Jones and Lamb will be the guys who can create matchup problems for UConn and really stretch a Wildcat lead. Jones is going to be looking at Lamb's Oak Hill teammate Roscoe Smith while Lamb will draw some of everybody, including Jamal Coombs-McDaniel and Donnell Beverly. Those two guys have the biggest potential to make this game very difficult for Calhoun.
While Kentucky goes deeper and probably is the more talented club top to bottom, I don't think they'll be able to contain Walker for 40 minutes, and Oriakhi cleaning up on the boards. If I'm UConn, I'm worried about how well Kentucky can space the floor and hit open shots, but ultimately it's going to come down to Kemba vs. Knight, and I'm taking the junior from the Bronx in that matchup. Kentucky, who almost lost to Princeton in the first round, will go down here to the last Big East team standing. A UConn-Butler championship game sounds good to me.
UConn 71, Kentucky 68