UK title about so much more than talent

April, 3, 2012
4/03/12
4:15
AM ET
NEW ORLEANS -- How did the Kentucky Wildcats just win the 2012 national title?

"We were the best team this season," coach John Calipari said.

"They were playing with pros," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "That didn't hurt, either."

Simple enough, right? Assemble the best freshman class in the country -- including a star center, Anthony Davis, that changes the game in ways both literal and metaphysical. Get Terrence Jones to decide to eschew a pre-lockout NBA draft and come back for his sophomore season. Keep senior Darius Miller around for leadership and savvy. A few months later, win the national title.

On Monday night, Kentucky made that process look remarkably easy in its 67-59 win over Kansas. It is this team's unique genius that the most difficult accomplishment in college basketball, and one of the most difficult in sports -- win six do-or-die games in a row -- can, once accomplished, seem downright rote.

Kentucky was the best team. It had the best players. Of course it won. Duh.

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Anthony Davis
Chris Steppig/US PRESSWIREKentucky's Anthony Davis tied a championship game record with six blocked shots.
But that explanation is not sufficient. There's more to it than simply talent.

How did the Wildcats storm the NCAA tournament with a brand of dominance not seen since the 2009 North Carolina Tar Heels, and rarely seen before? How did they end that run by snuffing out an experienced, tough-as-nails Kansas squad, one led by a top-five pick and one of the best coaches in the country? How did Calipari's team go from "wow, these guys look talented" to "NCAA champions" in five short months? Here's how:

Dominant interior defense.

This is no surprise, of course: All season long, the college basketball world has marveled at Davis' shot-blocking and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's defensive will, and the way this team has made the typically simple act of scoring in the paint a feat akin to a 30-foot 3-point shot. Kentucky opponents ranked last in the country in two-point field goal percentage and overall effective field goal percentage this season.

This ability was rarely more obvious than on Monday night. Davis and Co. held Kansas to 17-of-51 (just 33.3 percent) inside the arc. Robinson and frontcourt mate Jeff Withey combined to go 8-of-25 from the field, all of which were two-point attempts. Davis' six blocks (and Jones' two) had much to do with this, of course.

But it goes far beyond sheer blocks. On Monday night, it was attributable to Davis' sheer presence -- the way he obviously and subtly affects his opponents' psyche with the knowledge that he's always around, somewhere close, waiting to send their shot the other way.

It stemmed from Davis' freakish mix of length, athleticism and agility; we've never seen a player so good at challenging more than one shot on any given possession, and few who can leave their man to contest a penetrating guard or a post move, but still recover quickly enough to grab rebounds and stop second chances. Davis was always hovering near Robinson Monday night, always ready to leap over and challenge the opposite post, while still able to grab 16 rebounds, 12 of them defensive.

And Jones was great in his own right Monday night -- and all season -- too. Charged with battling Robinson for post position, he rarely allowed KU's star to catch the ball cleanly near the rim. Instead, as Kansas swung the ball around the perimeter, Jones shifted with Robinson, moving his body to either side to prevent the post entry and disallow Robinson from sealing him over the top.

It was a clinical post defense performance. Robinson felt its effects -- and Davis' presence, and the sheer combined strength and speed Kentucky has used to dominate opponents around the rim all season -- in a Nov. 15 loss in Madison Square Garden. And he felt it again in the national championship game.

Incredibly balanced, efficient offense.

For all the talk of this defense (and it has dominated the Kentucky discussion for much of the year), the Wildcats' best trait for most of the 2012 season -- particularly during its undefeated SEC regular-season blitzkrieg -- was its offense. Hello, Monday's first half; goodbye, Kansas Jayhawks.

In Monday's first half, Kentucky scored 41 points on 16-of-30 shooting, including 3-of-7 from beyond the arc. It bumrushed the Jayhawks in a variety of ways, both in slower half-court sets and fast-break opportunities. Doron Lamb took the lead in the first half as he did throughout the game, scoring 22 points on 7-for-12 from the field, 3-of-6 from beyond the arc and 5-of-6 from the free throw line. When Kansas' defense shaped up in the second half and held Kentucky to just 26 points, Lamb's 10, including two key back-to-back killer 3s to stave off an even earlier Jayhawks push, were absolutely crucial.

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Doron Lamb
Richard Mackson/US PRESSWIREDoron Lamb hit two crucial 3s for Kentucky to stave off a KU run.
But the Wildcats were balanced in their early breakout, too: Jones had six points, Kidd-Gilchrist 11, Teague nine, Miller three and Davis zero. (You don't need to score when you dominate every other facet of the game like Davis did.)

All of which was emblematic of the Wildcats' offensive style this season. As Calipari was fond of touting, no UK player averaged more than 11 shots per game this season. Their usage rates, per KenPom.com, were as follows (in order of highest to lowest):

Terrence Jones: 22.6 percent
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist: 21.7 percent
Marquis Teague: 21.1 percent
Anthony Davis: 19.1 percent
Darius Miller: 18.9 percent
Doron Lamb: 18.1 percent

That is the utter definition of balance, and it's precisely what made this team so good: There was no one option opposing teams could lock in on and stop at all costs, no "if they don't do this, they'll lose" quality available to scouts and assistant coaches. If you stop Davis -- if he shoots 1-for-10 -- well, big whoop. You still had to guard Teague on ball screens, Lamb on off-ball screens (on curls and fades and every manner of creative methods to get easy open shots), Jones in the low block and on the offensive glass, Kidd-Gilchrist in penetration and on the fast break, Miller in the mid-range. There was no way you could do all of it all the time, for a full 40 minutes.

If the Wildcats played well, they would beat you. Now that I think about it, that part really is sort of simple.

The unique nature of this once-in-a-generation group.

Hard-nosed interior defense. Offensive balance between six remarkable, multifaceted talents. These are the two primary qualities the Wildcats brought to the floor for nearly all of 2011-12, and they're why Big Blue Nation got to celebrate the program's eighth national title Monday night. (And Tuesday morning. And probably Tuesday night. And Wednesday. And Thursday ...)

Getting to this point -- to get to the national title, to create this remarkable team -- wasn't merely a matter of recruiting this talent and letting it go do their thing. And voila! National title! That's not how it works. Calipari had to do his finest coaching job of all-time, too. He had to meld these players together into that all-hands-on-deck offensive attack, had to get them to defend every possession like it was their last, and he had to embark on a near-constant process of adjustment and acclimatization.

There are plenty of examples of this in the 2011-12 season, but perhaps the most noteworthy is how much Calipari changed the pace of the Wildcats' attack in SEC play. Kentucky averaged 70.7 possessions per game in nonconference play. This was vintage Cal, vintage Kentucky: Uptempo, utilizing the dribble-drive motion offense, overwhelming opponents with sheer talent until they finally were forced to relent.

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Marquis Teague
Richard Mackson/US PRESSWIREAs the season progressed, freshman point guard Marquis Teague began to find more control.
But Teague struggled. He was prone to turnovers and forced shots; he was trying to do too much, to be the all-everything point guard he was in high school, when he was the No. 1-ranked player at his position in his recruiting class. So Calipari slowed the Wildcats down. In 16 SEC games, they averaged just 62.6 possessions. The slower pace made the game easier for Teague. He rushed less, controlled more. As a result, his assist-to-turnover ratio skyrocketed. Meanwhile, Kentucky's best defensive trait -- that inside rim-protecting defense -- was allowed to establish itself, as opponents found themselves stuck playing UK in a halfcourt game.

And so it was that the Wildcats were able to enter the tournament as a team capable of playing fast or slow, on the break or in the fray, with a freshman point guard that calmly and coolly worked the Wildcats away from two sets of upset-minded, turnover-forcing guard corps at Louisville and Kansas. Those teams made their late runs. The tension built. But Teague, a world away from November and December, was ready.

These Wildcats won't be easily replicated. There are few players in the world like Davis, who grew to become the nation's most dominant player years after most top prep stars have already been groomed and coddled beyond recognition. There are few top-5 picks like Kidd-Gilchrist, as acutely aware of his strengths and weaknesses -- and as willing to play within the game, to do whatever it takes to win -- as any elite star we've seen in decades. There are few players like Jones, the sophomore big enough to play power forward but skilled enough to plug holes on the perimeter as well.

These players, and their teammates, arrived at this season with both tangible and intangible qualities that primed them for success. Calipari had to find them, first and foremost. But he also had to mold them. They had to trust him, too.

And their willingness to do all of the above -- their special qualities and complementary abilities and sincere care for more than draft hype and touches, but for more lasting glory -- transcended any of the easy labels foist upon them by the outside world.

"What I wanted them to show was that we were not just a talented team," Calipari said, just minutes after cutting down the nets in honor of his first national championship. "We were a defensive team, and we were a team that shared the ball.

"I wanted that. I told them I wanted this to be one for the ages. Go out there and show everyone what kind of team you are, even though we were young. It doesn't matter how young you are. It's how you play together."

That will be the lasting lesson of the 2012 national champion Kentucky Wildcats: Youth only means so much. Talent, too. Greatness requires so much more.

This team had all of it, everything it takes on offense and defense and in the locker room and on the sideline. On Monday night, they made sure we'd remember that more than anything else. And so we will.

Or, at least, we should. Because winning a national title like this team just won a national title is never -- despite appearances to the contrary -- as simple as it looks.

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