Kansas, Kentucky ready for title rumble
NEW ORLEANS – Jayhawks or Wildcats, take your pick. Either can make a case for this being “their” year.
For Kansas, a season that started with low expectations keeps getting better, filled with high-wire comebacks and an inescapable feeling that this was simply meant to be.
For Kentucky, a cadre of NBA-caliber players have had the word “champion” practically imprinted on their chests since they gathered at Rupp Arena for the season’s first practice.
They meet Monday for the NCAA championship, a history-filled matchup between the two winningest programs in college basketball history. This is the one-and-dones at Kentucky vs. juniors and seniors at Kansas; Anthony Davis vs. Thomas Robinson in a front-court battle of All-Americans; a title-game coaching rematch between John Calipari and Bill Self; a high-stakes meeting between one team whose founder invented the game and another that likes to claim its legendary coach perfected it.
Kentucky (37-2), in search of its eighth national title but its first since 1998, has five, maybe six, players who will be playing in the NBA soon. Most are freshmen and sophomores. None are better than Davis, the 6-foot-10 freshman who had 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks in Kentucky’s 69-61 win over Louisville in the semifinals.
“Anthony Davis is a great player, but he’s not Superman,” Self said, clearly ignoring the fact that, only moments earlier, Davis had been walking around the Superdome with his practice jersey slung across his shoulders like a cape.
The supporting cast isn’t too bad, either. Calipari finds himself working with the most talent – Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are likely lottery picks, while Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb are among the others with first-round potential.
That talent is the main reason why oddsmakers have Kentucky as a 6 1/2-point favorite to seal the deal this year in its third consecutive trip to the Elite Eight and second straight to the Final Four.
“Doesn’t bother us,” Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor said. “They’ve got high expectations, and they had a great year so the expectations should be high. What we think, though, is that we match up with them well. We feel confident going into this game.”
And why not?
Though the talent level may not be as strong as Kentucky’s from top to bottom, the Jayhawks (32-6) get more reinforcement every game that anything is possible.
On Saturday, they overcame a 13-point deficit against Ohio State for their latest escape act. Before that in the tournament, they won close ones against Purdue, North Carolina State and North Carolina.
They were comeback kids in the regular season, as well – a season that began with low expectations for a roster that got hit hard by graduation and other departures, then fell to 7-3 after an ugly, unexpected home loss to Davidson.
“I was a little frustrated because I thought that we were underachieving, underperforming,” Self said. “I thought we were a stale team. I thought we were slow. I thought we didn’t play with great energy. I thought the things we had to do to be successful, we weren’t committing to doing them.”
But that all changed, in large part thanks to the development of Robinson, known for his first two years in college as a role player with NBA skills. He was allowed to blossom when he got regular playing time this season and is averaging 17.7 points and 11.7 rebounds a game. He was the only unanimous AP All-American and was in the conversation, along with Davis, in most of the player-of-the-year voting.
“We know how good Thomas Robinson is,” Calipari said. “We all up here know. We went against him in New York. He is as good as they get. He’s a vicious competitor, great around a rim, expanded his game.”
These teams met in November at Madison Square Garden, a 75-65 Kentucky victory in the second game of the season. There wasn’t much conversation about that one Sunday; come Monday night, it will be but a minor footnote in the history of a pair of tradition-rich basketball bluebloods.
“I dreamed about it as soon as I saw the brackets,” Self said. “I did look. I said, ‘How cool would it be to play Kentucky in the finals?’ You guys know better than me, but when do you have the two winningest programs in the history of ball playing each other? I don’t know when. From a historic standpoint, I think that’s really cool.”