ARLINGTON, Texas — As is the case with every Connecticut game, the matchup focus begins in the backcourt. After all, the Huskies’ Shabazz Napier is the American Athletic Conference player of the year and a consensus All-America.
But for the NCAA championship game that matches the Huskies against Kentucky tonight, the other half of Connecticut’s backcourt may hold the game’s key.
Ryan Boatright isn’t in the spotlight like Napier, but when Florida coach Billy Donovan broke down the Gators’ loss to Connecticut in Saturday’s semifinal, he spent more time praising Boatright than any other player.
“It all starts with Boatright,” Donovan said.
On the defensive end — and given how Kentucky has won its last three tournament games — Boatright’s defensive ability becomes magnified.
The Wildcats’ Aaron Harrison buried huge 3-pointers in the regional victories, a go-ahead shot against Louisville with 39 seconds remaining and a game-winner against Michigan with 2.5 seconds to play.
But Harrison’s biggest shot came in the national semifinal against Wisconsin, a deep 3 from the left wing with 5.7 seconds left that gave Kentucky a one-point victory.
Without identifying specific matchups, it seems likely Boatright would get the defensive call if Harrison finds himself in that position again.
Whoever Boatright checks — Aaron or his twin brother, Andrew Harrison — the principles won’t alter.
“I ain’t going to reveal any secrets but I’m just going to try and do my best to make them uncomfortable,” Boatright said. “Just try to get up in them and be a little physical with them.”
A problem, Boatright concedes, is size. With the twins both 6-feet-6, Boatright gives up nearly a half-foot in height. The Harrisons have been masters at taking smaller guards off the dribble and either finishing at the hoop or drawing in the rim protector, which leaves the lob available for one of the bigs to slam home.
“They’re good point guards, they’re big,” Boatright said.
Perhaps until Saturday, Boatright had maintained a low profile despite solid numbers. He has averaged 12 points, 3.4 assists and 3.4 rebounds. Napier is the team’s undisputed leader, but the Huskies aren’t playing for the championship without Boatright.
If you want to apply the Batman and Robin analogy, Boatright understands.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Boatright said. “Going through life, I was always Batman. Someone else was my sidekick.
“But Shabazz is the man right now. There can’t be selfishness or jealousy.”
Napier also has played both roles. As a freshman, he deferred to Kemba Walker, and the result was the 2011 NCAA championship. Napier played 27 minutes in each Final Four game that season.
To Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie, Boatwright has flourished in the role he’s chosen to accept.
“It’s allowed him to become a better basketball player,” Ollie said. “He’s just been doing a wonderful job, and has been impactful in us getting here. It’s what we want in the evolution of him as a player.”