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 tonight 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 is 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.
As he has all year and all tournament, Calipari has not so much defended as explained his coaching philosophy, which is to go after the very best players and not demand they graduate, but only that they play team basketball for whatever amount of time they spend in the Commonwealth.
“I don’t like the rules,” Calipari said. “I want Anthony to come back and be my point guard next year. It’s really what I want. There’s only two solutions to it. Either I can recruit players who are not as good as the players I’m recruiting or I can try to convince guys who should leave to stay for me.”
He won’t do either. By pulling no punches, the coach 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.
Calipari is a win away from the first national title of a stormy and controversial career, one that began as a volunteer assistant at Kansas. His first two trips to the Final Four have been vacated because of NCAA violations. Though his 2008 trip with Memphis is no longer in the record books, it’s clearly emblazoned in his memory.
That team, led by Derrick Rose, had one essential flaw — bad free-throw shooting — and the coach dismissed it every time he was asked about it in the days and weeks leading to his final against Self and the Jayhawks. The Tigers missed four free throws down the stretch and blew a nine-point lead in what turned into an overtime loss that gave Kansas its third NCAA title.
Lessons learned? Well, Calipari does make his team run more after bad free-throw shooting nights.
But regrets? Not many.
“At the end of the day, we had a nine-point lead,” he said. “I have to figure something out. Go shoot the free throws myself, do something to get us out of that gym and I didn’t.”
A year later, Cal was out of Memphis and putting the pieces in place for his run at Kentucky. It began with a trip to the Elite Eight, continued last year with a spot in the Final Four and oddsmakers have Kentucky as a 6.5-point favorite to seal the deal this year against Kansas.
“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.”
Somewhere in that mess, however, he saw the potential.
Much of it shined through 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.
More noteworthy were all the historical aspects of this game.
Basketball, of course, was invented by James Naismith, who later went on to establish the KU basketball program in 1898.
Adolph Rupp grew up in Kansas and learned the game under Naismith and the next KU coach, Phog Allen, then moved to Kentucky. Over four decades, “the man in the brown suit” won 876 games and four NCAA championships.
So many iconic names have followed at both places: Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Brown, Danny Manning at KU; Dan Issel, Wes Unseld, Rick Pitino at Kentucky.
Come Monday night, somebody else could get their name up in the rafters at Allen Fieldhouse or Rupp Arena.
“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.’”