College Basketball National Championship Preview: The New Fab Five?

Can Kentucky's young squad beat UConn's suffocating backcourt?

Only 1,780 of the 11 million-plus brackets on this year correctly predicted tonight’s college basketball National Championship game. No one – not even the UConn grad who went to get his masters at Kentucky – saw this coming.

Kentucky was supposed to be here. They started the preseason as the top-ranked team in the country, but hope seemed to be lost as they didn’t live up to their preseason hype. But things clicked at the right time, and talent took over. And really, if, in November, we saw Kentucky representing their side of the bracket in the National Championship, we would’ve shrugged and said, “That makes sense.”

Connecticut, on the other hand, wasn’t appreciated the way Kentucky was to start the year. While they were projected to be a very strong team this season, ranking 18th in the country in the college hoops preseason rankings, they played in a questionable conference and were fortunate to win an early-season, out-of-conference game against Florida. But they’re here now, and they deserve to be here.

Kentucky’s late-game heroics combined with Connecticut’s pure will to win should make for a great National Championship game tonight. But what should we expect? What does each team need to do in order to win? Let’s take a look at both the Wildcats and Huskies and find out.

Defense Can Win Championships

As cliché as the statement above is, if UConn ends up winning tonight’s game, defense is going to be the reason.

Consider this: UConn allowed a little over 63 points per game this season against all teams, good for a defensive rating that was top-25 in the country. Over their last two games in the tournament, they’ve held Michigan State and Florida to 54 and 53 points respectively, all while stopping a Georges Niang-less Iowa State and Villanova to well below their season average in points scored.

Each of those teams ranked in the top 20 in adjusted offensive rating this year. And UConn held them. They completely stopped them.

A huge reason their defensive play has been so stellar is due to their backcourt performance from star Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Against Florida in the Final Four, the guards only allowed three Florida assists while the team forced 11 turnovers. Meanwhile, Napier and Boatright turned the ball over just three times, assisting on nine buckets. Be prepared to watch UConn pressure Kentucky’s guards tonight, hoping to force turnovers and limit passes down low, where Kentucky would be able to take advantage.

According to our metrics, UConn still has the 57th-best offense, and are a top-20 team in terms of nERD. But not everything is butterflies and rainbows for the Huskies. In fact, one area of this game could be devastating for Connecticut is on the defensive glass.

During the regular season, UConn allowed over 10 offensive rebounds per game, which ranked worse than 280th in the country. The average was a tad better than the raw numbers, as they allowed a 30.6% offensive rebounding rate. That was good for 229th-best in the nation.

While their rate on the defensive boards has been better throughout the tournament, the problem is that their opponent tonight is beastly at grabbing offensive rebounds. No team had a better offensive rebounding rate during the regular season than Kentucky, and the Wildcats have grabbed 13, 15 and 11 offensive rebounds in their last three games. UConn needs to make sure they’re not giving Kentucky second-chance points.

In the end, it’s going to start and end with the guard play, mostly on the defensive side. If they don’t allow Kentucky to get the ball down low or drive to the basket to get those second-chance points, they’ll be in good shape.

The New Fab Five?

While UConn’s path to the championship game has been incredibly impressive, you could argue that Kentucky’s was even better. The Wildcats have gone through a one seed – albeit a slightly overrated one – in the second round, beat one of the analytically best four seeds in tournament history against Louisville, and knocked off a pair of top-15 squads in Michigan and Wisconsin. All with five freshman starting.

Is it a better version of 1991’s famous Fab Five? If they end up winning the championship tonight, you could certainly make the argument. No team has ever won a national title with five freshman in the starting lineup.

As noted above, Kentucky’s backcourt is going to have to play a strong game to get the W. Both Napier and Boatright have sub-100 defensive ratings, and are capable of forcing turnovers and limiting assists. Andrew Harrison has average four turnovers in the tournament so far and usually plays point guard – he’ll need to limit those mistakes tonight for Kentucky.

But what Kentucky will really need to do is get the ball down low, similar to how they handled Frank Kaminsky and Wisconsin. In that game, the Wildcats scored 46 points in the paint, all while limiting Kaminsky. UConn has the length, but not the size, to stop Kentucky’s big men.

Limiting turnovers and getting second-chance points. It’s easier said than done against a suffocating UConn defense that doesn’t allow a lot of offensive movement inside. But it's what Kentucky needs to do.

Who Wins?

Keep in mind that Kentucky is the superior team analytically, entering the game with a nERD of 15.02. That score is the best – by far – from any eight seed we’ve seen since 2000. While UConn’s nERD is just a little over a point worse, Kentucky’s metrics are better, and they’ve been tested more than UConn has this year, seeing a top five strength of schedule.

I won’t give away our winner – you can find that answer here. All I’ll say is that we’re in store for a fantastic matchup of two teams that will want to do two very different things during the game. And in a contest with as much raw talent as this one, you know we’re in store for a classic.