UK, KU Square Off with Title on the Line
This is it.
The night every college basketball team dreams of at the start of the season.
The night one team will cut down the nets as national champion.
And boy, is there one hell of a game to be played.
Kentucky, the top overall seed and the prohibitive championship favorite for some time now, squares off against Kansas tonight in New Orleans to decide who gets to call themselves the top dogs of college basketball. John Calipari, generally known as the best recruiter in the game, leads Kentucky’s cadre of talented youngsters (six of the Wildcats’ top seven rotation players are sophomores or younger, and all six played in the McDonald’s All-American Game in high school) against Bill Self, the winner of the Naismith Coach of the Year award for 2012, and a Kansas squad built on experience rather than reputation (the Jayhawks’ top seven are all upperclassmen, none of whom played in a well-known high school all-star game).
With just a few hours to go before tipoff, let’s start by rehashing the tournament up to this point – a pre-emptive “One Shining Moment,” if you will.
Best game: Kentucky-Indiana, Sweet 16. The highest-scoring game of the tournament, this rematch of Big Blue’s only regular-season loss did not disappoint. All five of Indiana’s starters scored in double figures, led by 27 from Christian Watford, the last-second hero of the first game. But Kentucky was even better. An ultra-efficient performance by guard Darius Miller (14 points from the field on just eight shots, plus 5-for-5 from the foul line) and an impressive double-double by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (24 points, 10 rebounds – six of them offensive boards) made up for a relatively quiet night from Anthony Davis and gave fans their first glimpse of the Wildcats running top-flight competition into the ground in the tournament.
Best comeback: BYU-Iona, first round. While certainly not the most high-profile matchup of the Dance, the Cougars and the Gaels played to an exciting finish. BYU, just one year removed from Jimmermania, came back from 25 points down, a tournament record, to earn a spot in the round of 64, by holding Iona, the nation’s top-scoring team, to just 17 second-half points.
Best player: Davis. Consideration has to be given to Kansas’s Thomas Robinson, who has posted an impressive 16.4 points and 11.6 rebounds in the tournament, but Kentucky’s freshman star has posted almost the exact same line – 15.2 and 11.6 – but has added an unbelievable 4.6 blocks per game as well. His AP Player of the Year award is well-deserved.
Most impactful moment: North Carolina thought this was the year that their collection of talent would bring the title back to Chapel Hill again. But when point guard Kendall Marshall crashed to the floor against Creighton and got up with a fractured wrist, those hopes went up in smoke. Marshall was the straw that stirred the Tar Heels’ drink, and his absence was clear in Carolina’s Elite Eight defeat at the hands of Kansas.
What this year’s tournament will be remembered for: Relatively few upsets. Sure, two 15-seeds toppled 2-seeds this year, the first time that has ever happened, and double-digit seeds Ohio and North Carolina State were whiskers away from facing each other in a regional final. But on the whole, this was the NCAA Tournament where the chalk prevailed. Only one top seed bowed out before the regional finals (Michigan State), and the entire Elite Eight calls the country’s power conferences home. 2012 will be remembered as the year the blue-bloods duked it out for alpha-dog status.
Thanks for that momentary indulgence. I always get a little sad when the tournament draws to a close, so a brief pause to reminisce always helps. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming; let’s size up the Wildcats and the Jayhawks.
Tale of the Tape
How they got here: Kentucky, the winner of an at-large berth, defeated #16 Western Kentucky 81-66 in the second round, #8 Iowa State 87-71 in the third round, #4 Indiana 102-90 in the Sweet 16, #3 Baylor 82-70 in the Elite Eight, and #4 Louisville 69-61 in the Final Four. Kansas, also an at-large team, took down #15 Detroit 65-50 in the second round, #10 Purdue 63-60 in the third round, #11 North Carolina State 60-57 in the Sweet 16, #1 North Carolina 80-67 in the Elite Eight, and #2 Ohio State 64-62 in the Final Four.
Kentucky: G Marquis Teague (Fr.), G Doron Lamb (So.), F Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Fr.), F Terrence Jones (So.), F Anthony Davis (Fr.)
Kansas: G Tyshawn Taylor (Sr.), G Elijah Johnson (Jr.), G Travis Releford (RS Jr.), F Thomas Robinson (Jr.), C Jeff Withey (RS Jr.)
The Wildcats have so many different players that can beat a team. Lamb is a deadly three-point shooter. Kidd-Gilchrist is an athletic slasher with a nose for offensive rebounds. Jones, when he plays hard, is a versatile combo forward who can go inside or outside. And then there’s Davis. The freshman sensation is a destructive defensive force, but his underrated offensive game helps power Kentucky’s success. Davis shoots over 60% from the field, which means he gets his points without hogging the ball, a key for a team with so many talented scorers. The lone weak link might be Teague, who has shown flashes of star ability but has also played like the freshman he is sometimes. If he gets into hot water with turnovers or if Davis gets in foul trouble, Kentucky could be in trouble.
For Kansas, the offense revolves around the inside-outside tandem of Taylor and Robinson. Taylor has struggled from deep in the tournament, but took over the game against North Carolina. Robinson is a double-double machine who gets his numbers despite double teams and facing forwards like John Henson of North Carolina. But the key for Kansas might be the seven-footer Withey, who shut down Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger in the Final Four, holding the sophomore star to 5-for-19 shooting from the field. He will have to be at the top of his game defensively to limit Kentucky’s second chances and force the Wildcats into tough shots at the rim.
Kentucky: Sr. G/F Darius Miller (10.1 ppg, 47.5 FG%, 37.4 3PT%), Fr. F Kyle Wiltjer (5.1 ppg, 44.1 FG%, 43.8 3PT%)
Kansas: Sr. G Conner Teahan (5.6 ppg, 33.8 3PT%, 83.9 FT%), Jr. F Kevin Young (3.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 48.0 FG%)
Miller has been a supersub for Kentucky this year, filling in whenever someone misses a game. He can stroke from downtown and guard almost every position on the floor. Wiltjer, a McDonald’s All-American like his teammates Teague, Kidd-Gilchrist, and Davis, has not seen heavy playing time this season, but is a major-league three-point shooter in his own right. For the Jayhawks, the first two are off the bench are Teahan, a former walk-on who shoots a lower percentage on threes than you’d like to see a one-dimensional shooter make, and Young, a transfer who can rebound, but who could potentially be a liability from the foul line (just 67.3% from the stripe) in crunch time.
Big advantage: Kentucky
Kentucky’s John Calipari is regarded as the best coach to never win a title. The slick recruiter has brought two other schools (UMass and Memphis) to the Final Four, but both times, the NCAA vacated the accomplishment. With his heavy reliance on “one and done”-type players, the whispered criticism is that Cal is better as a recruiter than as a coach, but this is the year he will look to change that. Self, meanwhile, is a solid recruiter in his own right, but has also been recognized as one of the top coaches in the game. In 2008, it was his Kansas squad that defeated Calipari’s Derrick Rose-led Wildcats in the national championship game, and Self will be coaching to take home his second title and his second major win over Calipari.
There’s no way to avoid it anymore. Kentucky is loaded this year, and quite frankly, they’re the favorites for a reason. With a dominant offense and an underrated defense (apart from Davis, of course), they are the best team in the land this year. Robinson and Taylor will put up a solid fight, but in the end, the Wildcats just have too many horses. Calipari sheds the label of best coach never to take home a title, as Kentucky wins and puts to rest the notion that a freshman-heavy team can’t get it done. Kentucky 70, Kansas 64
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