NCAA basketball: Kansas, Kentucky are set to meet in power-program final
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 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, 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, Calipari 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.