Just looking at the names, it seems like another battle for the ages between two of college basketball’s most storied programs when Kansas and Kentucky play for the national title on Monday night. But if you look a little closer, the teams couldn’t be more different in many ways.
For Kentucky, a berth in Monday’s final tilt in New Orleans has seemed like its destiny ever since coach John Calipari signed the most highly-regarded class of freshmen since Michigan’s famed “Fab Five” of the early-1990s. Hoops expectations are always high in the Bluegrass State, but the minute that group stepped on the floor, a number of Wildcat fans weren’t going to be happy with anything less than winning tonight’s game. (Incidentally, Michigan’s freshman-dominated squad also made the national title game in 1992.)
Jayhawk fans also expect elite seasons every year, but even after winning seven consecutive Big 12 titles coming into this season, nobody expected this team to get this far. Kansas was picked by the league’s coaches to share the title with Texas A&M, but that seemed to be based more on the program’s reputation than results: there are no McDonald’s All-American’s on KU’s roster (Kentucky has six) and only one returning starter, mercurial senior point guard Tyshawn Taylor.
The Wildcats left little doubt about their dominance early on. The ‘Cats trounced Mercer 108-58 in their opener, then beat the Jayhawks by 10 their next time out. They blew through five more opponents with ease, then beat North Carolina by one on Dec. 3 before finally losing a road game to Indiana on Christian Watford’s buzzer-beating shot on Dec. 10. That would be the last game UK would lose until Vanderbilt stunned the ‘Cats in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game.
UK so dominated everyone throughout the winter that by February, some Las Vegas casinos had established the Wildcats as 9:5 favorites to win the national title.
Kansas, meanwhile, dropped a seven-point decision to Duke before November was over. That was no big deal, but about four weeks later, the Jayhawks were on the losing end of one of the nation’s stunning scores — an 80-74 defeat to Davidson in Kansas City, not far from the KU campus.
Three months later, it’s the Jayhawks who almost have the “team of destiny” feel. Just getting past its second NCAA Tournament game was a huge challenge for KU, as 10th-seeded Purdue led the Jayhawks in the final 30 seconds. Next, North Carolina State trailed KU by one with 15 seconds to play before the Jayhawks held on in that one, too.
The breaks were just beginning for Kansas. Next up was North Carolina, which had to play without injured point guard Kendall Marshall. UNC’s offense stalled, scoring no baskets in the final 5:46, and Kansas advanced to the Final Four where it trailed Ohio State in the first half by 13 before coming back and winning that one, too.
Meanwhile, Kentucky’s loss to Vanderbilt seemed to get the Wildcats’ attention just as coach John Calipari had hoped. UK beat Western Kentucky, Iowa State, Indiana and Baylor all by double-digits, and though it nearly blew a late lead against Louisville, the ‘Cats had what it took to pull out an eight-point win down the stretch on Saturday to get this far.So now that we’re here, let’s talk about the match-ups.
By all rights, Kentucky should win this game. Center Anthony Davis was deservingly named National Player of the Year after having one of the all-time greatest defensive seasons by a post player in NCAA history, and also shooting 64 percent from the field. Forwards Terrance Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can beat teams in the paint or shoot from outside. Doron Lamb and Darius Miller are one of the nation’s best outside shooting duos, and talented point guard Marquis Teague, though erratic early in the season, has posted a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio in the NCAA Tournament. For good measure, McDonald’s All-American Kyle Wiltjer comes off the bench.
It’s talent that nobody can match, but let’s not count the Jayhawks out yet. Thomas Robinson was many people’s pick as the national player of the year until Davis took over down the season’s stretch. Robinson has always been considered an NBA talent, but last year played behind three eventual NBA lottery picks and didn’t see as much court time as a man of his talents normally would.
That wasn’t the worst of it, though: in a span about a month, Robinson lost both his of his grandparents and his mother, and was left to help comfort his younger sister. Even a year later, Robinson still has to deal with questions of how he was able to handle the situation and come back strong — questions he’d rather not deal with.
So, Robinson’s presence in the low post gives someone KU can match with Jones. Beside him in the low block is 7-foot center Jeff Withey, who came out of nowhere to have a solid junior season, then turned it on in the NCAAs to block 27 shots so far. Combined, the two have a shot to neutralize UK in the post if they play at the top of their games.
The key for KU, though, may be Taylor. The senior had a fabulous year, but he can be turnover-prone (he had five against both NC State and OSU) and he’s missed all 20 of his 3-point shots. If you’re Kansas, the good news is that the Jayhawks were good enough to get this far in spite of that.
Either way, tonight’s outcome makes for a great story.
If Kansas wins, you’ll have the ultimate feel-good story for Robinson, who handled his tragedy with incredible grace while playing with passion on the floor, bringing his team to heights that no one dreamed of in November.
If Kentucky wins, this ‘Cats team should go down as one of the great college basketball teams of all time. Even with that level of talent, it’s incredible to see how Calipari has gotten this bunch to play with such maturity and unselfishness.
For the record, I’ll take Kentucky to win by a 78-70 score.