After then-No. 10 Connecticut beat Washington 82-70 on Dec. 22 at Alaska Airlines Arena, hardly anyone could have imagined UConn would go on and win the national championship.
Connecticut took control against UW midway in the first half, led 43-39 at halftime and was up by as much as 14 with less than 13 minutes left. Washington never got closer than eight points the rest of the way.
But early on, C.J. Wilcox buried a three-pointer that gave UW a 31-14 lead at the 7:03 mark in the first half and the crowd of 7,059 at Alaska Airlines Arena went wild. It was one of the few highlights of a season that went terribly wrong for Washington.
Meanwhile, Connecticut guards Shabazz Napier (20 points) and Ryan Boatright (16) combined for 36 points.
Four months later, the sensational backcourt tandem again combined for 36 points to lead No. 7 seed UConn to a 60-54 win over No. 8 seed Kentucky in front of 79,238 at AT&T Park for the school’s fourth national championship. Napier, who won the Most Outstanding Player award, tallied 22 points and Boatright had 14.
Connecticut (32-8) was far from perfect this season. It finished third in the American Athletic Conference. However, UConn provided a championship blueprint that UW can emulate next season.
Here’s five things Washington can learn from Connecticut.
TWO POINT GUARDS ARE BETTER THAN ONE:
— There’s some similarities between UConn and UW, which starts with the both team’s dependance on its guards. Napier and Boatright comprise what is arguably the best backcourt in the nation. Next season Washington will rely heavily on freshman Nigel Williams-Goss (13.4 ppg., 4.4 rpg., 4.4 apg.) and sophomore Andrew Andrews (12.3, 3.9, 2.6), it’s leading returning scorers. Napier (6-1) and Boatright (6-0) were undersized while Williams-Goss (6-3) and Andrews (6-2) are able to use their superior size against opponents. However, here’s the difference: UConn uses a pick-n-roll offense that’s perfect for Napier and Boatright. They’re excellent playmakers who create scoring opportunities for teammates. And they can score. Each took over 100 three-pointers and shot better than 37 percent behind the arc. Williams-Goss and Andrews took fewer than 100 three-pointers and shot less than 36 percent behind the arc. And after two years, Washington may need to re-evaluate the high-post offense. Even with the NCAA’s new rules geared to help offenses, UW averaged 75 points. It averaged 68 points last season. While running a motion offense the previous 10 years, Washington had just one season averaging fewer than 77 points. It would be interesting to see Williams-Goss and Andrews in pick-n-roll situations.
FREE THROW SHOOTING MATTERS IN CLOSE GAMES:
— Connecticut beat Kentucky by six points while going 10 for 10 at the line. The Wildcats were 13 of 24. After the regular season, UConn shot 76.1 percent on free throws and ranked ninth in the nation. Washington ranked 1oth at 75.8 percent. That shouldn’t change much for UW even with the departure of Wilcox, who was 87.3 percent at the line. Williams-Goss, Andrews, Darin Johnson, Mike Anderson and Shawn Kemp Jr. shot better than 71 percent at the charity stripe. Connecticut won the national title by six points. In games decided by six points or fewer, UConn was 12-2. Coach Kevin Ollie on free throws: “We just worked on it tirelessly in practice. It’s competitive every time we do it. You got winners and losers. Of course the losers got to run sprints. They get real competitive with it. I think that’s what we tried to create, that competitiveness in them, especially taking free throws. It’s also getting the right people at the free‑throw line. Getting the right people with the ball at the end of the game so they can get fouled and they can knock down the shots. But our guys are so composed. And in pressure, they are confident and we just worked. My coaching staff does a great job with our bigs, getting them extra free throws after practice.”
DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS:
— The biggest difference between Connecticut and Washington is defense. UConn allowed 70 points in just 10 games this season. On average Connecticut allowed 63.5 points, which ranked 36th in the nation. It allowed teams to shoot 39.2 percent from the field, which ranked 13th nationally. In its last three games, Connecticut held teams to 54 points or less. Boatright was a shoot-first guard, but this season he became UConn’s best perimeter defender. When asked how Connecticut was able to keep the bigger Kentucky guards out of the lane, Boatright said: “Me and Shabazz got a lot of heart and we’re tough. We’re tough‑minded and tough physically. When you try to get physical with us, we get physical right back at you. We’re not going to back down to nobody. To get to the rim, you got to get past us. So just because you’re big, you got to be quick and you got to get low. We moved our feet and stayed in front of them.”
WHO NEEDS BIG MEN?:
— Connecticut used just three players who were taller than 6-8 in the NCAA tournament and only 6-9 junior forward DeAndre Daniels averaged more than five points and four rebounds. Despite being undersized, UConn outrebounded Kentucky 34-33 on Monday. Again, Napier is a big reason. He was second on the team in rebounds (5.8 per game). Connecticut relied on a three-guard lineup and just a handful of big men and it was able to overcome bigger opponents such as Michigan State and Florida. UConn embraced its small-ball philosophy. Boatright credits the team’s grueling offseason workouts. He said: “We really hated it, like the running was crazy and KO pushed us to do it. Coach Ollie didn’t let us out of it. I remember him saying when I did not want to do those sprints, he was like, If you do it, at the end of the year when everybody else is tired, you’re all going to be good and y’all are going to run them out of the gym. And it happened. We were getting up and down the floor and they were gassed and they were bent over and we were still standing straight up and ready to go.”
ESTABLISH ROLES AND AN IDENTITY EARLY:
— Even to those unfamiliar with Connecticut, it’s pretty easy to formulate a scouting report on the Huskies. Napier is the do-everything leader who isn’t afraid to take big shots. Boatright is a pesky perimeter defender, streaky scorer and better-than-average playmaker. Daniels is the No. 1 low-post scoring option who is asked to take over when Napier and Boatright have an off night. Senior forward Niels Giffey is a spot-up, three-point specialist who shot 48.3 percent behind the arc. Sophomore 6-10 forward Phillip Nolan is the fifth starter and serviceable big man. The main three bench guys – senior guard Lasan Kromah, freshman center Amida Bromah and freshman guard Terrence Samuel – are a mixture of size, experience and youth. Ollie sold the UConn players on specific roles and they bought in. Ollie didn’t have the most talented roster in NCAA tournament, but Connecticut embodied the NBA journeyman who had an 13-year pro career with 12 teams due to his defensive grit and high basketball IQ. It’s coaching 101, but Ollie sold the UConn players on an us-against-the-world mentality that paid dividends. He said: “They believed in a vision before anybody seen it. They stuck with it through the down times, when we were losing. When we weren’t winning, they stayed together and they believed it was possible. I think that’s the beautiful thing about this championship for me when I reflect on it, those guys toughness, but also their togetherness.”