Prior to the beginning of this year's NCAA Men's Basketball tournament (affectionately referred to as "March Madness"), billionaire Warren Buffett was offering a billion dollars to anyone who could complete a perfect bracket.
The immediate reaction to anything that pays a billion dollars is "WOW," because, well, a billion is a lot. Never mind that the odds are like 9.2 quintillion to one to attain a perfect bracket, and Buffett's billion was safe by Saturday of the first weekend.
I mean, it's a BILLION!
Truth be told, if Buffett really wanted to put his money where his mouth was, he'd find a few million between his seat cushions to duke anybody who had Connecticut and Kentucky in their bracket finals!
Because that's what we have tonight.
The seven seed UConn and eight seed Kentucky, two basketball blue bloods who in retrospect were definitely better than the seeds they got. UConn was a seven seed largely because their new conference (the AAC, yo!) was viewed as trash by the selection committee, and Kentucky was an eight seed because they lost 10 games and were in a conference only slightly better (SEC! SEC! SEC!).
However, both are now playing at a high level, and tonight both bring very specific traits to AT&T Stadium, and the winner will be the one who is able to impose their traits on the other team. In short, this is the size and bulk of Kentucky (EVERYWHERE on the floor) against the dogged defensive pressure of UConn's guards and fearlessness of Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels.
Here are the four biggest keys to the game in my estimation:
4. UConn's defensive rebounding against Julius Randle and company. Kentucky's biggest advantage in this game is its size on the interior, and at times during this tournament, Julius Randle has looked like an oversized sixth grader pushing around a bunch of third graders on the Nerf hoop in his basement. The only area where Florida had a decided advantage over UConn was on the offensive glass, where they gathered 12 offensive rebounds. Without those second chances, UConn probably wins that game by 20 instead of by 10.
3. The size of the Harrison twins UConn's backcourt of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatwright have been as dominant defensively as any tournament backcourt that I can remember, and have absolutely ruined the last two point guards they've played (Appling, Michigan State and Wilbekin, Florida). Tonight, is a taller order. Literally, like the Harrison twins are really freaking tall. As much as we talk about Kentucky's bulk inside, the height advantage at guard will need to be neutralized if UConn is going to win.
2. Foul trouble For UConn, as spectacular as Napier has been, DeAndre Daniels has to stay out of foul trouble. They simply can't win with him off the floor as he is the one guy who gives them a consistent inside-outside scoring threat. To wit, Napier only took six shots against Florida and UConn won going away. If Daniels takes only six shots, it means he's on the bench saddled with fouls. For Kentucky, the Harrisons need to neutralize the dribble penetration of Napier and Boatwright without reaching and getting whistled. Napier's ability to get into the teeth of a defense is a huge part of his game.
1. Belief According to the seeds, neither of these teams should be here. They should have both been gone by the first Sunday, but here they are. Connecticut's belief in itself is more of a macro thing, forged over the last two years by young head coach Kevin Ollie's keeping the program together through the tournament banishment a year ago (for academic issues years ago). Kentucky's belief is a game to game thing that's manifested itself in five tournament wins by a combined 18 points. If it's late and close, they think they will win. UConn just think they will win, period.
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Tonight, I'm going macro.
PREDICTION: UConn 64, Kentucky 59 ***
*** Total homer play, I grew up in a UConn family. Just sayin'.