NCAA Championship Game – Picks & Predictions

National Championship Game:

Connecticut Huskies (7 seed, 31-8) vs. Kentucky Wildcats (8 seed, 29-10)

When: April 7, 2014

Time: 9:10 pm

Line: Kentucky -2.5

The championship game is set as a No. 7 seed face off against a No. 8 seed for the first time in tournament history.

As the UConn Huskies and the Kentucky Wildcats square off Monday night, it’ll be a battle between two historic programs looking to add another championship to their trophy cases.

Led by Kemba Walker, the Huskies earned the right to call themselves champions in 2011. In 2012, another one-and-done class of phenoms brought another title to the Bluegrass State.

Now there will be one more game to determine who will be champion in 2014.

Why Kentucky will cover:

After missing the NCAA tournament last season, there’s no doubt that the Wildcats were a long shot to get to Arlington–let alone, be playing for a National championship–this season.  Their talent was never questioned, but their desire and effort certainly was.

Quite often in sports, talent wins out, and that’s what’s happening–and will continue to happen–on the Wildcats magical tournament run.

When Willie Cauley-Stein went down, many wondered if that would be a deciding factor in their matchup against the Wisconsin Badgers. But Alex Poythress’ excellent play off the bench proved otherwise and has provided a much-needed spark game after game for Coach Calipari.

Freshman phenom Julius Randle, who scored 16 points and grabbed five rebounds in their semifinal victory over the Badgers, will be the toughest to matchup against for anyone UConn coach Kevin Ollie asks.  Whether its Amida Brimah, DeAndre Daniels or Phillip Nolan, the task will not be easy.  Julius is a beast.  He scores when he wants, whenever he wants.  He has the ability to finish despite the contact. Randle’s strength set him as one of the most NBA-ready prospects, simply because he’s not going to be bullied like a lot of power forwards. Expect Randle to have the game of his career on Monday night.

Kentucky, who has trailed or been tied at the half in every tournament game thus far, can expect another close battle.  But as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing, if the Wildcats are within three points at the end of the game, then it’s time for Aaron Harrison to shine.

As proven all tournament long, he doesn’t need to light up the scoring sheet to prove why he was ranked No. 9 on the ESPN 100 list. As the entire Bluegrass nation knows, the Wildcats would not have been playing in Final Four without him.  And they certainly wouldn’t be vying for a National championship if Harrison didn’t turn into Superman during their tournament run. He’s answered the bell every time when called upon.  Can he do it one more time?

Why UConn will cover:

Shabazz Napier, more than any other player in this year’s NCAA Tournament, has been credited with carrying his team. Saturday night in Arlington was no different.

It wasn’t Napier’s offense that was the deciding factor in their victory over the heavily favored Florida Gators, but it was his influence on defense that turned the momentum in the Huskies favor. Napier proved that even when he isn’t at his best offensively, he will utilize his unparalleled talent and effort to be a game-changer the defensive side of the ball. Despite scoring only 12 points, Napier was effective by passing for six assists and guided the team through a difficult early period.

After outclassing Wilbekin in a matchup of senior point guards, Napier will be tested once again in the matchup versus Kentucky.  This time, it’ll be against the Harrison twins.  Both physical and quick off the dribble, Aaron and Andrew can not only get to the basket with ease but can also beat you from the perimeter.  Napier, 6’1”, and Ryan Boatright, 6’0”, will be asked to defend against the Harrison twins, who are 6’6”.  Since defending against size hasn’t been an issue for the Huskies yet, I don’t see it starting on Monday night.

When all is said in done, there’s no question how the Wildcats will perform, because Coach Calipari is going to have his team ready to play.

It’s going to come down to the most important offensive player in the game, and that’s Napier.  He knows how to manage the game, and can cause havoc for opponents even without putting the ball through the basket. Playing at least 37 minutes for the fourth time in five tournament games, Napier didn’t force his offense against the Gators. Instead, he was content to involve his teammates, especially DeAndre Daniels, who has been a different player in this tournament than the player we saw in the American Athletic Conference over the regular season.

Averaging 17.6 points and 7.4 rebounds in five tournament games, the 6-foot-9 junior scorched Florida’s vaunted defense for 20 points and 10 rebounds on Saturday night as the Huskies advanced within a victory of their fourth national title.

Napier and Daniels are a lethal duo.  If they can get help from three-point shooter Niels Giffey–who is one of three UConn seniors who also played in the Final Four in 2011–and defensive-stopper Boatright, the Huskies will not only win but will run away with it.

My pick: Bet on the UConn Moneyline

Leading up to the National championship game, you’re going to hear all about Kentucky’s size and how the Wildcats are a mismatch for the smaller Huskies. It’s going to be the same story when UConn opposed Iowa State, Michigan State and Florida. All of these teams were superior to the Huskies, and were supposed to provide a major mismatch, but led by Napier, the Huskies are the ones playing for a title–not the Cyclones, Spartans or Gators.

Kentucky has survived by the fate of Aaron Harrison’s miraculous 3-point shooting, while Kevin Ollie has his team playing at a championship level, clicking on all cylinders. But the bottom line is, one team has a player named Shabazz Napier and the other team doesn’t. He’s been a leader all year and a superstar all tournament. As he takes the court for the final time in his college career, don’t think twice if you’re witnessing greatness or not. Don’t think twice where Napier ranks amongst the greats that have donned a Husky uniform. Don’t think twice about who’s going to be cutting down the nets on Monday night.

Forget the points. UConn is going to win. Why? Because Napier won’t allow the Huskies to lose this one. Not on this stage. Not in this game. And certainly not on this night.