Sunday, April 1, 2012
Kentucky and Kansas, the titanic finale
By Eamonn Brennan
NEW ORLEANS -- Back in October, we said we'd get a colossal Final Four. When the brackets were released, we forecast a chalky March. When the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight finished in thrilling fashion and the final weekend of the NCAA tournament's marquee event took shape, we knew, after two years of unexpected mid-major incursion, we'd get back to the blueblood basics on the grand Superdome stage.
We were right.
And even so, whether four months or four weeks or four days ago, it was difficult to fathom the sheer titanic size of Monday night's matchup. Because they don't get much bigger than this.
It is Kentucky and Kansas, the two winningest programs in the history of the sport, the place where the game was invented versus the place that has obsessed over it each and every day since. It is Anthony Davis versus Thomas Robinson, the nation's consensus national player of the year and the player who most closely challenged him for those honors all season. It is a rematch -- a rare national title rematch after two such games in the Final Four -- of a mid-November Kentucky win at Madison Square Garden. It is John Calipari and Bill Self -- the coach whose 2008 Memphis team frittered away a national title in the final two minutes getting a redemptive crack at the program and coach who beat him. And it is, of course, the Superdome, an epic setting with a knack for producing fittingly monumental games.
Anthony Davis, who won multiple awards as the nation's top player, put on a show Saturday.
So, now that we know what to look forward to -- and the process of evaluation, analysis and prediction begins in earnest -- let's take a first look at what (we hope, anyway) will be a national championship game every bit as big as the programs, storylines and atmosphere that inhabit it.
This is Kentucky's title to win. Kansas was asked about its first meeting with the Wildcats (a 75-65 Kentucky win) more than few times here Saturday night. It would be foolish to pay too much attention to that game for obvious reasons: It came on Nov. 15, nearly five months ago; it was just the second game of the season; both teams were still in the larvae stage, and so on. But it is instructive in at least one way: Nov. 15 was the date we all realized just how insanely talented this Kentucky team is, how high its ceiling was, how much sheer athletic ability it brought to the floor. Kansas' Thomas Robinson was everything we imagined he would be, but even one of the nation's most gifted frontcourt players was dwarfed and swarmed by Anthony Davis -- who had seven blocks and 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting (he's always been this good) -- Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the rest.
Jeff Withey had yet to emerge for Kansas, which has made this team an entirely different beast. Self's guidance since has been magnificent. Kansas of April 1 barely resembles Kansas of Nov. 15. All of that is true. But the point remains: Kentucky has looked like a national title contender since it dropped the Jayhawks in November, and it has only gotten better since. Marquis Teague has gone from too eager and turnover-prone to the cool hand that calmly guided Kentucky past a tricky Louisville team Saturday night. Darius Miller has emerged as a glue guy, leader and sixth-man extraordinaire. Kidd-Gilchrist has played himself into the top three of the NBA draft thanks to his rare combination of toughness, talent and willingness defending. Terrence Jones is a less moody, more driven version of himself, less likely to pout, more likely to seek and destroy.
If you haven't figured it out by now, know this: This is not your typical freshman-filled, one-and-done team. This is a group with no ego. Its two best players (Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist) rank sixth and seventh on the team in shot percentage (the percentage of available shots they attempt). On the whole, Calipari has molded this once-in-a-decade (if that!) combination of talent and unselfishness into a national championship steamroller.
The names on these teams' jerseys suggest there is no true underdog here, but that will not be the case on Monday. Kentucky is too good to be anything other than the overwhelming favorite. It's just too good.
Which doesn't mean Kansas' cause is hopeless. Far from it, of course. Yes, Kentucky inhabits a different stratosphere, but down here on Earth, the Jayhawks happen to be a very good basketball team. They entered Saturday's Final Four as the No. 4 team in the nation in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings, with a defense ranked No. 4 in efficiency and an offense ranked No. 16. They were 16-2 in the Big 12, 32-6 overall, they have a top-five draft pick of their own in Robinson, a talented senior point guard in Tyshawn Taylor, and a 7-foot shot-blocking center of their own in Jeff Withey. In fact, Withey's block percentage -- he had seven more against Ohio State and Jared Sullinger on Saturday night -- is 15.1 percent, the highest in the nation. Anthony Davis' 13.95 percent actually ranks No. 3.
In so far as anyone can match up with Kentucky -- and really, no one can -- Self's team actually matches up pretty well. Withey isn't nearly as mobile as Davis (obviously), and it's hard to figure who will guard Kidd-Gilchrist or how a good-but-not-great offense will find its buckets against a still very good Kentucky defense. But in terms of sheer strength-on-strength matchups -- Kentucky's strength is offense, Kansas' defense -- Self's team isn't that far off the mark.
Especially if it plays two halves of defense. It is somewhat miraculous that this team has a chance to win the national championship, once you consider how poorly it has played in the first half of its past four NCAA tournament games. In wins over Ohio State, North Carolina, NC State and Purdue, the Jayhawks have allowed an average of 37.5 points in the first half and just 24 points in second halves. Their opponents' shooting percentages plummet after the locker room visit: Total field goal percentage drops from 49.1 to 24.2, and opponents' 3-point percentage drops from 51.2 to 18.4.
Elijah Johnson and Kansas outscored Ohio State 13-7 in the final five minutes.
The glass-half-empty pessimist would be inclined to wonder why Kansas doesn't muster that stifling defense all the time. But give the Jayhawks credit: They turn it on late.
Kansas outscored Ohio State 13-7 in the final five minutes Saturday; the Buckeyes shot 2-for-10 during this stretch. It was the fifth straight game that a Kansas opponent shot worse than 30 percent in the final five minutes, including 0-for-7 by North Carolina in the regional final. That's a remarkable quality -- the ability to get better and better as the game goes along -- and it will be one the Jayhawks need to expand on to give themselves a chance to take home a title Monday night.
"Kentucky had to play for 40 minutes today, too," Self said after his team's win Saturday. "And the thing about it is they're terrific. Our second-half performance, if we could play both halves that way, [Kentucky] is still good enough to [for us] to get beat."
The hype says T-Rob versus the Brow. The matchups say otherwise. As much as we would love to see Davis and Robinson match up on the low block time after time -- a vintage clash for the ages in the Superdome, just turn down the lights and shut up and watch -- that dream (which is currently playing in my head, and it's glorious) is probably no more than that. The two national player of the year candidates will surely meet at the rim more than once Monday. They'll see plenty of each other, no doubt. But the way Kansas and Kentucky are composed, the Jayhawks almost certainly have to put Withey on Davis or use that triangle-and-two defense Self has often busted out to confuse opposing offenses in the tournament. Leaving Withey to guard Terrence Jones, who could pull the 7-footer out to the perimeter, seems like an unwise idea.
Good news for Tyshawn Taylor. Kentucky doesn't force many turnovers. As of this writing, the Wildcats rank No. 297 in the nation in opponents' turnover rate, which is just 17.7 percent. That's been the fundamental flaw in Taylor's game all of his career, and throughout the tournament, and it was part of the reason he struggled so mightily against Aaron Craft and Ohio State on Saturday. Kentucky's defense holds back its foes in other ways -- namely Davis' shot blocking, great shot defense all over the court and a unique ability to avoid putting opponents on the free throw line.
Can Kansas' offense break down the Wildcats' defense? It's hard to imagine. But at least Taylor won't have to worry about Craftian levels of stress Monday night. That must be a relief.
No one will be distracted by Bourbon Street now. There is a tendency to assume that this insane city bleeds into focus and preparation, that it makes it more difficult for the coaches to control their players, keep them in line and keep them ready to play. That doesn't seem to be the case. Kansas' players were spotted strolling Bourbon Street on Wednesday night, and that didn't change their ability to lock down on defense Saturday. Kentucky's players, both old and young, seem entirely unwilling to focus on anything else but the basketball. They are preternaturally calm.
And as for Self, he was asked about this just after the game Saturday. His strategy? Lock his players away.
"I told them Bourbon Street was in the locker room tonight," Self said. "That's as close as they're going to get to it. ... Guys will go straight to their room. We don't even let them go to the lobby. Unless they got some sheets they can tie together and drop them from the 14th floor, they're not going anywhere tonight."
It seems slightly draconian, but if it's the price KU's players have to pay to give us the best possible game Monday night, we're glad they're (probably begrudgingly) willing to take it.
After all, this game has all the makings of an epic -- the programs, the history, the coaches, the talent. All it needs is a Kansas team up to the task.