The case for (and against) each Final Four team in Houston (cont.)
Reason to pick them: They're the most talented team in Houston. If you define "talent" as having a future in the NBA, then Kentucky is the team for you. That includes big Josh Harrellson, who has played his way onto the radar of scouts and GMs the last few weeks.
The Wildcats' talent has been obvious from Day 1, but it is only in the last four weeks that the team has really jelled. There are two main differences between UK now and UK in January. The first is the team's commitment to defense, which has been enhanced by the invaluable contributions of glue guy DeAndre Liggins. The second is the ability to finish off games. For much of the regular season, Kentucky's biggest problem was an inability to win on the road in the conference, but four of its five SEC road losses came by four points or fewer. No player better evinces this maturation than freshman point guard Brandon Knight, who hit game-winning buckets against Princeton and Ohio State despite shooting a combined 4-for-18 from the field and 1-for-7 from three-point range. Now that their maturity is catching up to their talent, these 'Cats are awfully tough to beat.
Reason not to pick them: They're the youngest team in Houston. At each successive stage of the NCAA tournament, the perils of inexperience tend to get exposed more and more. Yes, UConn is also dependent on a bunch of freshmen, as well as a sophomore in 6-foot-9 forward Alex Oriakhi, but Kemba Walker, their leader and most important player, is a junior. Kentucky's leader and most important player is Knight. He and his greenhorn classmates, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, don't seem to have been fazed by the crucible of the tournament so far, but you have to factor in the very real possibility that they will be a rattled playing on such a big stage.
Reason to pick them: Kemba. It has been a long, long time since any player has had a month, much less a season, like the one Walker just had. It started in November, when he averaged 30 points per game while leading the Huskies to the Maui Invitational (including a 29-point performance in a championship rout of Kentucky) and carried right through his epic five-wins-in-five-days march through the Big East tournament.
Walker is a great example of a guy who knows how to play well when he's not playing well. Though he has not shot a high percentage in the NCAA tournament, he has still gotten more than his share of assists, steals and rebounds, and of course he has perfected the art of the clutch shot. The best thing about Walker is the way he has learned to trust his freshman teammates, especially Jeremy Lamb, who might be the best pro prospect in Saturday night's matchup with Kentucky. Walker set the tone in the second round when he had 12 assists to just two turnovers in a thrashing of Bucknell. He is putting up incredible numbers while also making his teammates better, and that is very, very hard to do.
Reason not to pick them: Lack of inside scoring. Oriakhi has evolved into a dependable rebounder and shot blocker, but if UConn needs to throw it to him in the post to win this game, it's going to be in trouble. Oriakhi has made a total of nine field goals in the NCAA tournament and has yet to hit double-figure scoring. Ditto for freshman center Tyler Olander. He played well during the Big East tournament and continues to start, but he played a total of 10 minutes against San Diego State and Arizona.
This weakness will make it nearly impossible for UConn to get Harrellson in foul trouble. That begets a troubling cycle: The more time Harrellson spends on the floor, the harder it will be for UConn to score in the paint.
Here goes nothing.
I'm taking Butler (score prediction: 64-60) in Saturday night's first game because I think VCU is due for a return to normalcy, and I like the Bulldogs' Final Four experience.
I'm taking UConn (77-76 in OT) in the nightcap because I don't believe Kemba Walker will let his team lose.
If past is prologue, those picks should be welcome news for fans of VCU and Kentucky. This is, after all, the 2011 NCAA tournament, where the experts ask all the right questions but produce very few right answers.