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March 31, 2011Connecticut and Kentucky last faced each other just four months ago, but it may as well have been four years ago. The two teams that will square off Saturday in an NCAA tournament semifinal bear little resemblance to the squads that met in the Maui Invitational championship game.
Jeremy Lamb played just 12 minutes for Connecticut in the Huskies' 84-67 victory over Kentucky at Maui, but he has since developed into the second-best player on the Huskies' roster. Niels Giffey, who played 33 minutes against Kentucky in November, has fallen out of Connecticut's regular rotation. Kentucky guard Doron Lamb played 14 minutes off the bench against Connecticut in the regular season, but he's now a starter and the Wildcats' best 3-point shooter.
Since that Maui matchup can't be used as a reliable indicator of what to expect, we have broken down the semifinal by evaluating which team has the edge in each department based on how the Wildcats and Huskies have fared lately.
WHO GETS THE EDGE?
BACKCOURT: Nobody has produced a better individual postseason than Connecticut's Kemba Walker, who has led the Huskies to nine straight wins. He has averaged 26.3 points during the postseason and has scored at least 18 points in each of those nine games. Walker already burned Kentucky once, as he scored 29 points and dished out six assists when Connecticut tamed the Wildcats 84-67 in the Maui Classic final. Kentucky has its own big-game performer in Brandon Knight, who buried game-winning shots in tournament victories over Princeton and Ohio State. Knight shot 3-of-15 (including 0-of-8 from 3-point range) and scored just six points against Connecticut in Maui, but he's a completely different player now. Kentucky's Doron Lamb and Darius Miller also have stepped up their play quite a bit since their last meeting with Connecticut. The X-factor here is Connecticut swingman Jeremy Lamb, whose emergence in the NCAA tournament has kept Walker from being such a one-man show for the Huskies. Kentucky must find a way to cool him off.
FRONTCOURT: Josh Harrellson proved he could hold his own against the likes of Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and North Carolina's Tyler Zeller, so how might he fare against Alex Oriakhi? The bigger issue for Kentucky could involve Terrence Jones. He scored 24 points against Connecticut in Maui but he's averaged 10.1 points and 6.6 rebounds in seven postseason games (three in the SEC tournament, four in the NCAA tournament). The Wildcats need more from him. Connecticut freshman forward Roscoe Smith provides a rebounding and shot-blocking presence, but he doesn't score much. Connecticut has been outrebounded in each of its last two games, though the Huskies won the battle of the boards 32-29 in their last meeting with Kentucky. The Wildcats got North Carolina's John Henson in early foul trouble last Sunday and would love to have Oriakhi meet the same fate, though Charles Okwandu gives the Huskies a decent insurance policy off the bench.
BENCH: Neither team has a whole lot of depth, though both teams have a defensive stopper in reserve. Connecticut freshman Shabazz Napier technically isn't a starter, but he averages more than twice as many minutes as actual starter Tyler Olander. Napier made the Big East all-rookie team this season and has emerged as one of the Huskies' best defenders. The 7-foot Okwandu gives Connecticut a big body who can complement Oriakhi in the paint, though he doesn't provide much scoring. Jamal Coombs-McDaniel showed his scoring potential by averaging 21.3 points during a three-game stretch against Providence, Georgetown and Louisville back in mid-February, but he has gone 1-for-13 from 3-point range over his last seven games. The only Kentucky reserve who gets consistent minutes is DeAndre Liggins, who started for much of the season and made the SEC's all-defensive team. Although he isn't a starter anymore, Liggins has averaged 31.5 minutes per game.
COACHING: The personal rivalry between Connecticut's Jim Calhoun and Kentucky's John Calipari has garnered much of the attention in the days leading up to the Final Four, but it's worth noting that the two coaches have faced off only five times before. The first two of those meetings came when Calhoun's Connecticut teams beat Calipari's Massachusetts squads in 1989 and 1990. They're 1-1 against each other since Calipari took over Kentucky's program. Both coaches have done outstanding work this year, as Calipari had to replace five first-round draft picks and Calhoun's team was picked to finish 10th in the Big East. The biggest factor separating the two coaches is that Calhoun has won two national titles, while Calipari is still seeking his first crown. That's enough to tip the scales to Connecticut.
INTANGIBLES: Confidence won't be a problem for either team, as Kentucky has won 10 straight games while Connecticut has won nine in a row. Connecticut's victory over Kentucky in Maui shouldn't give the Huskies much of a psychological edge since both teams rely heavily on freshmen who were just beginning their college careers when these teams last met. Connecticut has been to the Final Four much more recently, but the only Huskies who played in that 2009 semifinal loss to Michigan State are Walker (20 minutes) and senior guard Donnell Beverly (two minutes). The guess here is that Big Blue Nation assures that Kentucky will have the most fans of any of the Final Four participants at Houston's Reliant Stadium. Playing before a friendly crowd might give Kentucky an advantage in this department.
PREDICTED SCORE: Kentucky 74, Connecticut 70