NCAA final is Kentucky's to lose

with Anthony Davis. He's never watched a replay of his Finals loss. DAVID J. PHILLIP / Associated Press
with Anthony Davis. He's never watched a replay of his Finals loss. DAVID J. PHILLIP / Associated Press (Kentucky coach John Calipari)
Posted: April 02, 2012

NEW ORLEANS - Kansas coach Bill Self was perhaps 20 minutes removed from seeing his team secure a spot in Monday night's national championship game when he crystallized the critical issue.

This Kentucky team, he said, is better than the Memphis team that outplayed his best team for 39 minutes in 2008. Left unsaid is that this Kansas team isn't anywhere near as good as the 2008 national champions.

So, how exactly does Kansas beat Kentucky? It probably doesn't.

"They've got guys that can make plays you can't coach," Self said.

The coaches get the money. Or at least the money we know about. They get the spotlight because the players are transient, especially these days. But it always helps to have the best players on your side.

That was Kentucky in November. It will be Kentucky in April.

These teams met on Nov. 15 at New York's Madison Square Garden. Kentucky won, 75-65. You might think that portends nothing, but who thought Kentucky's 69-62 win over Louisville on Dec. 31 was predictive until Kentucky beat Louisville, 69-61, on Saturday?

Kansas shot just 33.9 percent that night at the Garden while Kentucky shot 51 percent and was 7 for 15 from beyond the arc. Kentucky had 13 blocked shots, seven by freshman phenom Anthony Davis.

Kansas made the score respectable because point guard Tyshawn Taylor got to the free-throw line 17 times and made 15 while the Wildcats were just 16 of 29 from the line. The teams combined for 33 turnovers, 19 by Kentucky.

Could Kansas win? Yes. Is it likely to win? No.

Kentucky coach John Calipari will play this game to win. He won't play not to lose, as Ohio State coach Thad Matta did Saturday night against Kansas. When Matta sat his scoring star Deshaun Thomas with three fouls early in the second half, he allowed his team to give up the big lead it had earned. When he sat Thomas with four fouls, he let the game slip away. Cal won't be afraid. He will let his players play.

"We're not changing how we're playing; we're playing to win," Calipari said. "I kept telling them to keep attacking."

Which is why Kentucky had eight dunks (that felt like 18) against Louisville. The Wildcats play without fear.

Calipari said he has never watched the tape of his Memphis team's 2008 loss to Kansas.

"That tape was flung out the door of the bus as we were going to the plane," he said.

Derrick Rose and his Memphis teammates had that game won and simply gave it away with late turnovers, bad fouls, missed free throws, and a foul they tried to take but did not before Mario Chalmers' legendary shot.

"It's just that everything that could have went wrong, went wrong, and everything they had to do right, they did," Calipari said. "The stars and the moon lined up, and all of a sudden we went to overtime."

If Calipari ever looked back, he isn't saying. If he is concerned about his legacy, he is hiding it.

"If my legacy is decided on one game, it won't be me deciding it," Calipari said. "It will be everybody else. I'm just trying to coach a game and do the best job I can for these kids."

These kids include three starters who are freshmen and two who are sophomores, with a senior coming off the bench and a freshman seventh man. Every last one of them could play in the NBA someday. Davis is a franchise changer.

"It's hard to come and play here - it's not for everybody," Calipari said. "Every game we play, it's someone's Super Bowl. You're not playing in front of an empty seat all year. There's no place to hide, no crack to go down into."

These players seem to thrive on it. The bigger the moment, the better they play.

When Louisville came from 13 points down to tie the game, 49-49, what happened? The Cardinals missed their next nine shots. That was no an accident.

"Anytime you don't know whether a team is better offensively or defensively, you know you've got a great basketball team," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said of Kentucky.

Kansas presents a challenge because it really defends, and no team in America is better at getting good shots in the post. You just wonder how Kansas can score enough to win.

Back in the day, Self followed Calipari to Kansas in a low-level job in the coaching office. Any list of the 10 most successful coaches in America today includes their names.

Self has his title. Calipari is heavily favored to get his with players who could be about themselves, but are not.

"He gets them to buy into we instead of me," Self said. "They're unselfish, they're tough, they're physical, and they guard."

The young Massachusetts version of Calipari screamed at the officials every possession because he didn't know any better. Over time, he realized it is about the players. So he gets them, coaches them, and - yes - yells at them, leaving the officials mostly alone.

This is Coach Cal's 20th year as a college head coach. He has had seven teams at three schools win 30 or more games. The only thing he hasn't done is win the last game.

With that, UK-KU - the school with the most wins (2,089) and most NCAA wins (110), faces the school with the second-most wins (2,070) and 93 NCAA victories, tradition against tradition.

This time, Kentucky has the better players and the better team. The Wildcats were supposed to win this tournament when it began. Nothing that has happened in the last three weeks that has changed that thought.

Hall of Famers. Once again, there is a Philadelphia connection among the 12 finalists for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

The 2012 class will be announced Monday night.

Maurice Cheeks, the 76ers great, and longtime official Hank Nichols, the now-retired Villanova professor, are among the finalists. Word on the street is that Cheeks did not make it, but Nichols has been seen on the streets of New Orleans, suggesting the former national coordinator of officials may be getting a plaque this summer in Springfield, Mass.


Kentucky (37-2) vs. Kansas (32-6)

NCAA basketball championship, 9:23 p.m. Monday, Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans.

TV/Radio: CBS3; WIP-AM (610).

Coaches: John Calipari (101-14 in three years at Kentucky, 513-150 in 20 years overall); Bill Self (269-52 in nine years at Kansas, 476-157 in 19 years overall).

Series history: Kentucky beat Kansas, 75-65, on Nov. 15 at New York's Madison Square Garden in the second game of this season for both teams. The only two NCAA meetings came in second-round games: a 92-88 overtime win for Kentucky in 1999 and an 88-76 Kansas win in 2007.

National title-game history: Kentucky has won the national championship seven times, Kansas three times. Kentucky has played for the title and lost three times, Kansas five times. The schools have played in a combined 18 title games.

How they got here: Kentucky beat Western Kentucky (81-66); Iowa State (87-71); Indiana (102-90); Baylor (82-70); and Louisville (69-61). Kansas beat Detroit (65-50); Purdue (63-60); North Carolina State (60-57); North Carolina (80-67); and Ohio State (64-62).

Three things Kentucky must do:

1. Run the break the way it has all tournament to get the easy baskets that break an opponent's will.

2. Funnel the Kansas offense to the great shot-blocking of Anthony Davis.

3. Play the game and not the clock, attack from start to finish.

Three things Kansas must do:

1. Run when given the opportunity, but not try to run with Kentucky for 40 minutes.

2. Make a few long shots, because otherwise the Jayhawks will not be able to score enough to win.

3. Pray that Anthony Davis does not show up.

What to expect: Kansas has done the classic survive and advance. KU was really outplayed by Purdue and, for long stretches, North Carolina State and Ohio State. The Jayhawks got a big break when UNC point guard Kendall Marshall could not play in the Midwest Regional final. Kansas is still playing because of its defense and toughness. That won't be enough against Kentucky, a team with too much talent, the look of a championship team, and a transcendent player in Davis.

Prediction: Kentucky has been the best team in the country just about the entire season. Syracuse could make that claim for a short time, but otherwise it has been Kentucky. The Wildcats clearly have been the best team in this tournament. They have been a force at both ends of the court that never stops attacking until its opponent finally submits. This looks like the final chapter in a championship book for Kentucky.

- Dick Jerardi


Contact Dick Jerardi at jerardd@phillynews.com.

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