Building UConn's game plan
Let's get one very obvious thing out of the way: I am not a college basketball coach. Therefore, I am not qualified to offer prescriptive advice to real, actual college basketball coaches. But it is fun to pretend to be a college basketball coach, to build analysis around potential game plans and strategy. In that spirit, and in advance of the Saturday's Final Four showdowns, let's engage in a little bit of role-playing.
If you were Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, how would you prepare your team for Kentucky?
Offensive game plan: If you don't think every coach in the country envies Calhoun, you're crazy. Because when you have Kemba Walker on your team, preparing an offensive game plan gets awfully easy:
"Uh, yeah, all right guys. Here's the plan: Kemba, go ahead and get the ball and, uh, you know, do what you do. OK, bring it in!"
Of course, that's a gross exaggeration; Calhoun's job is not even remotely that easy. Sure, it helps to have a transcendent star such as Walker drawing so much defensive attention (and scoring anyway), but Calhoun has also been strategically and developmentally brilliant in his own right this season. The much-maligned Connecticut coach has managed to put Kemba in consistently productive positions while also overseeing the incredible development of youngsters Shabazz Napier, Roscoe Smith, Alex Oriakhi and especially forward Jeremy Lamb, whose star turn in the NCAA tournament has earned him the title of Robin to Walker's Batman. (If I was Lamb, I'd prefer "the Pippen to Walker's Jordan" -- Robin is probably the most uncool superhero ever -- but, to each his own, I guess.)
Lamb has provided a huge boost to the Huskies in the tournament, primarily because he's hitting outside shots. The lanky forward has been hyperefficient from beyond the arc in March. He has made 11 of the 15 3-point shots he's attempted in UConn's four tournament wins, and it's not hard to figure out why that sort of marksmanship is important to the Huskies. Simply enough, if Lamb is hitting outside shots with that kind of consistency, teams can't possibly leave him, which means one fewer option on the defensive rotation and one more avenue through which Walker can exploit the defense.
According to Synergy, 19.6 percent of Connecticut's offensive plays in the tournament have come from spot-up shots, while 15.7 percent have come on off-ball screens. Most of those off-ball plays have been run for Lamb. That has been Calhoun's greatest tournament success. Using Walker as a decoy, he's been able to free up a red-hot second scorer on a variety of more traditional sets and cuts.
Expect to see much of the same against Kentucky. Calhoun will look to keep his team balanced early -- a little Walker, a little Lamb, a little transition -- while he adjusts to what the long, physical Wildcats devote their focus to stopping. Then it's a matter of read and react. Two months ago, Calhoun didn't have that option. That he now does is to his, and Lamb's, eternal credit.
Defensive game plan: Don't expect the Huskies to force many turnovers. For one, Connecticut doesn't ever force turnovers. The Huskies are ranked No. 310 in the nation (seriously) in opponents' turnover rate this season. Plus, Kentucky (TO percent rank: No. 10) rarely turns the ball over anyway. This won't be a pressuring, hands-in-the-passing-lanes defense from UConn. At this point in the season, you can't turn into something you're not. You wouldn't even want to try.
Still, that doesn't mean the Huskies shouldn't be active in their pressure. Kentucky is no longer an athletic but distance-challenged offensive team; this batch of Wildcats can fill it up. UConn has to extend its defense to the 3-point line, and it has to hedge ball screens and overcompensate on handoff plays to prevent open looks for Doron Lamb, Brandon Knight and Darius Miller.
Kentucky is a tough offensive assignment. It's not often you get a group of players this physical and athletic and skilled. It's rare to see a combination of players that can break you down off the dribble or hurt you with long-range touch. But the Huskies are athletic enough to contain Kentucky's guards in one-on-one scenarios. In the end, the difference may be Oriakhi's coverage of Josh Harrellson. Can the big UConn forward can extend his defense to guard Harrellson and help on screens out to 20 feet? If he can't, the Wildcats are likely to shred Calhoun's team, and UConn will be forced to make everything up on the offensive end.
That's not a position you want to assume in November, December, January, February or March. But it's especially undesirable in April.
The Kentucky player(s) Connecticut is most worried about: Forward Terrence Jones. Jones hasn't been the most efficient offensive player down the stretch for Kentucky, but his combination of size, strength, face-up skills and post production makes him a matchup nightmare for most teams. Which Connecticut forward guards Jones? Lamb? Smith? Oriakhi? The first two give up too much weight, and Oriakhi will have to keep tabs on Harrellson, especially in rebound situations. If I'm Calhoun, I'm not sure I have anyone who can match up with Kentucky's freshman forward, and combined with the rest of the Wildcats' offense that concerns me a great deal.
UConn will win if: Kemba picks his spots early and gets his points efficiently; screen action for Lamb yields easy buckets; Oriakhi is big on the offensive glass; the Huskies get a few buckets in transition; the defense finds a way to stop Kentucky's screen and handoff action and finds someone to defend Jones.
UConn will lose if: Kemba has an inefficient shooting night and is flustered by a bigger, rangier defender; Lamb suddenly goes cold or can't get free in the half court; Harrellson keeps Oriakhi on the glass; Uconn's defense doesn't extend to keep Kentucky shooters from getting open looks; the matchup issues presented by Jones prove unsolvable before it's too late.
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com.
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