Championship preview: UConn’s defense will test Kentucky

April 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

2014-4-5 aaron harrison hits the winner

He started every fall with the “zig-zag drill,” a simple exercise where ballhandlers zigged and zagged down the court while defenders couldn’t use anything but their feet to stay in front. It wasn’t the only reason Jim Calhoun’s teams at UConn were routinely great on the defensive end, of course, but it was part of their foundation, their culture, as he built a program that bullied its way into the nation’s elite.

That drill has remained part of UConn’s identity through the transition from Calhoun to Kevin Ollie, and basic as it may be, Calhoun has seen its importance during the Huskies’ unlikely run to Monday’s national championship game.

And now it’s Kentucky’s turn to see if they can do what Michigan State and Florida couldn’t: Get by the chain of defenders UConn has thrown at every elite ballhandler in this tournament.

“We live and die on defense,” Ollie said after UConn’s 63-53 victory against the Gators. “Hopefully everybody understands that.”

It’s a pretty fundamental thing in basketball, maybe the most fundamental of all. For all the talk about game-planning or experience or size, sometimes it just comes down to this: Can you stop the guy with the ball from getting where he wants to go?

That’s why UConn, a team that tied for third with Memphis and Southern Methodist in the American Athletic Conference, has suddenly become a defensive juggernaut in the NCAA tournament. And that’s why the Huskies, for all their perceived (and real) shortcomings this season, have a legitimate chance to add a national title to the three Calhoun won (1999, 2004 and 2011).

With Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright just eating up opposing guards on the defensive end in this tournament, the question Kentucky will have to answer is whether guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison can do enough of what they need to do offensively to beat the Huskies.

UConn made Michigan State a jump-shooting team. UConn turned Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin into a non-factor. And if UConn makes Kentucky a jump-shooting team, they’ll likely head home with the title.

“They have turned into a great defensive team,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “I think that was probably missing for a good portion of their season. They have really been able to defend at a high level.

“I think it all starts with Boatright. He does a great job really pressuring the ball. And like Scottie said, even when you go by him, they turned us, they flip balls, they slapped balls out of our hands, they got on the break, they got us to take tough shots. There’s not many guards we have played against that have kept Scottie Wilbekin out of the lane. These guys kept him out of the lane.”

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