College Basketball Nation: Darius Miller

1. Kentucky coach John Calipari will be in Newark Thursday to see what he hopes is another record night. He has been touting a stat that is hard to beat: Every Wildcats starter for the past three seasons has been or will be an NBA draft pick. The only player that could be a question mark heading into Thursday is Darius Miller; but I expect him to go in the second round. The Wildcats will likely see five starters drafted in the first round: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Marquis Teague. Teague will go likely fifth among the playmaking group that includes Dion Waiters, Damian Lillard, Austin Rivers and Kendall Marshall.

2. Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said the Seminoles will surprise some people next season “like we always do.’’ FSU has had a few workouts and will have even more once the next summer session starts. Hamilton reports junior forward Terrance Shannon, who didn’t play after losing to UConn on Nov. 26 due to a shoulder injury, is coming along quite well. And Hamilton said the leadership out of big shot Michael Snaer and Ian Miller is already taking shape in offseason workouts. The Seminoles were a first-place ACC team in the middle of the conference season and ended up finishing 12-4, 25-10 overall before losing to Cincinnati in the third round of the NCAA tournament.

3. Replacing Mike Dunlap on the St. John’s staff may be as important as all the players Steve Lavin signed this year. Dunlap was hired because of his player development skills and the Red Storm will once again have a young roster. Lavin needs to find a strong candidate who can handle a similar role during a critical season for St. John’s. Lavin doesn’t need a recruiter in that position, he needs a coach who will be in the trenches and in the gym.

Take Three: Who should go No. 2?

June, 19, 2012
There is no debate about No. 1 in the upcoming NBA draft. Anthony Davis has that one locked up. But who should go No. 2? Three of our writers weigh in on which player they'd take if they were drafting second overall:

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Mark Cornelison/Getty ImagesMichael Kidd-Gilchrist has proven he can play and win, qualities general managers should be after.
Kentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Dana O'Neil)

The NBA draft has confounded me for years, with general managers and scouts selecting players on upside and potential, imagining what a player might someday be instead of considering what he already is. To me, it should boil down to two simple, easily answered questions: Can he play and does he win?

With Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the answer to both is an emphatic yes. That’s why I’d take him with the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft.

As much as Anthony Davis dazzled through Kentucky’s national championship run, I believed it was Kidd-Gilchrist’s tenacity, especially through the slow grind of the regular season, that kept the Wildcats going. He was a freshman who never played like one, using his energy and toughness to lead vocally and by example.

Davis was the star, Darius Miller the veteran, but I believed MKG was Kentucky’s heart. He has the things you can’t teach -- relentless rebounding skills, a swarming defensive presence and a never-let-you-lose toughness -- and he's just 18 years old, so he can refine the rest. Yes, his jump shot would make most shot doctors’ "don’t" lists, but surely someone in the NBA can help clean that up.

I get the questions. I get that he doesn’t fit in neatly with the NBA’s checklist. He’s not an obvious No. 2 pick because he’s not exactly the right size for any one position and he’s not exactly an offensive player and he’s not exactly a slasher.

I’ve also never heard anyone wax poetic through the NBA Finals about a player’s wingspan and how it’s won a team games. The Charlotte Bobcats are in dire need of a lot -- an intervention, perhaps, at the top of the list -- but above all else, they need two things: They need guys who can play basketball and guys who know how to win.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist knows how to play and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist knows how to win.

Sometimes you just don’t need to make things more complicated than that.

[+] EnlargeBradley Beal
Jeff Blake/US PresswireA spectacular March put Bradley Beal in the conversation for the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft.
Florida's Bradley Beal (Myron Medcalf)

A former college standout once told me that regular-season performances proved little. “When the lights come on” in March and April, however, the true talents emerge, he said.

I respect that mantra. Former Florida Gator Bradley Beal lived it. The freshman earned instant street cred as a key piece in UF's run to the Elite Eight.

Beal looked like a top-10 prospect in the first three months of his first and only season of Division I basketball. And then March happened.

During an SEC tournament loss to Kentucky, Beal scored 20 points. He also finished with eight rebounds and five assists. He connected on 4 of 7 from beyond the arc.

But he didn’t stop there. Beal averaged 15.8 points per game and connected on 42 percent of his 3-point attempts during the NCAA tournament. A youngster who’d entered the Big Dance as a possible lottery pick had thrust himself into the “What if he’s the second-best player in this draft?” conversation.

Thomas Robinson might make more sense for the Bobcats at No. 2. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has a near-perfect build for an NBA small forward. Hard to argue against either of those guys.

But Beal deserves that slot based on his versatility and potential. He’s a 6-foot-4 guard who can play point and wing. He has range (34 percent from 3-point range). He’s athletic. And he commits to the little things, such as rebounding and defense.

In recent weeks, Beal has been compared to Ray Allen, Dwyane Wade and Eric Gordon. He’s a tough guard who can extend defenses with the 3-ball or crash the lane as a penetrator. He's definitely worth the gamble at No. 2.

[+] EnlargeThomas Robinson
Bob Donnan/US PresswireThomas Robinson has the potential to be an All-Star power forward in the NBA.
Kansas' Thomas Robinson (Eamonn Brennan)

The NBA draft is often about extremes, about choices between two disparate sets of needs. Do you draft for production or potential? Do you want a player with a limitless ceiling, or one who will deliver immediate results? Put more topically, do you want Andre Drummond or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist?

Perhaps no player in the 2012 NBA draft (other than Anthony Davis, of course) bridges these divides quite like Kansas forward Thomas Robinson. His projected competitors in the top five, players like MKG and Drummond and Brad Beal, will, regardless of position, force GMs to make some sort of underlying choice.

With Kidd-Gilchrist, you know what you're going to get. With Drummond and even Beal, you are assuming the player's potential will vastly eclipse his production as a freshman. (Beal seems like the much sounder bet here, but it is nonetheless a bet.) That might be right. It might not. Robinson presents the best of both worlds: Already a very good player -- the consensus runner-up for 2012 national player of the year -- T-Rob still has tons of room to improve.

Robinson's past two seasons (a sophomore campaign backing up the Morris twins and a breakout junior year) offer evidence of both. In 2012, the Kansas forward posted a rebounding rate of 30.5 percent, the highest mark in the nation in a skill that typically translates well to the NBA. Robinson's offensive rebounding rate fell to 11.5 percent last season from 18.8 percent in 2011, but that had as much to do with his new role as KU's go-to scorer as anything else.

Bottom line: At the very least, Robinson will do what every NBA power forward must do: He will rebound. He has the athleticism and tangible production to back that prediction. Worst case, if he ends up becoming a more-skilled Kenneth Faried, well, which NBA coach wouldn't sign up for that?

But Robinson's evolution from a rebound machine/energy backup to go-to guy is still a work in progress, one that should make most NBA scouts salivate. T-Rob is still building his offensive skills away from the rim, still finding a midrange-to-18-foot jumper, still working on post moves over both shoulders, still refining many of the offensive and defensive fundamentals that separate the best post players from the merely mediocre.

Robinson is not a finished product by any means. If this finishing process goes well, he could be an All-Star power forward one day. Even if you're being conservative, maybe he becomes a more athletic, above-the-rim version of Utah Jazz-era Carlos Boozer. Again: We're dealing with a high ceiling here.

There are players with more potential, and there are players who offer a stronger predictive picture without the ceiling to match. But other than Davis, I'm not sure there is a top-five-level player with equal measures of both. Less risk, more potential. If I'm an NBA GM and I can't take Davis, that calculation sounds pretty good to me.
WASHINGTON D.C. -- The Kentucky contingent went through two practice runs on the dais to make sure they got it just right. No one, after all, wants to mess up the procession into the East Room and the presentation of a jersey, ring and ball to President Barack Obama.

There was a scattering of people in the room at first, mostly security personnel and White House staffers when Kentucky first entered. But as soon as the doors opened to allow invited guests in, Kentucky fans painted the East Room blue.

They weren’t all dressed in UK colors, but they sure were boisterous -- even starting a few C-A-T-S chants.

Teams arriving for the now-annual celebrations that started under the late President Reagan are always celebratory, but not usually as euphoric as Friday.

After witnessing three of the past four NCAA men’s basketball champs to come to the White House, I can tell you that no fan base has rivaled Kentucky's.

“I didn’t know it was going to be like that,’’ UK senior Darius Miller said. “It filled up fast. It was empty and then in five seconds it was full.’’

This is a program that can easily sell out a mundane practice. So no one should be surprised that the Big Blue Nation showed up.

But there was more to Friday then the annual meet-and-greet with the President. This was the last time the Kentucky players were together as one team.

Five of them declared early for the NBA draft, and that group -- as well as Miller -- will likely get a chance to be together at the Chicago pre-draft camp next month and again at the NBA draft in June. But all of them together? This was it.

And what better way to go out than a ribbing from the Commander-in-Chief.

President Obama had picked, like many of us, Kentucky in the final as he filled out his bracket for ESPN for the fourth straight year. He originally wanted to go with the Wildcats to win it all, but changed his mind and chose North Carolina in the end.

[+] EnlargeKentucky at the White House
AP Photo/Carolyn KasterPresident Barack Obama welcomed national champion Kentucky to the White House on Friday.
“I had them in the championship game," he said Friday. "But in the end, I thought, they got all these freshmen. These guys are too young. And keep in mind, at this time last year, three of the Wildcats’ five starters were still in high school. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist couldn’t even vote yet.

“But let’s face it, sometimes talent trumps experience. And sometimes, a bunch of young players, even if they’re used to being big fishes in their ponds, even if they’ve never played together before, they can buy into a system, they understand the concept of team, and they do something special right away. And that’s exactly what happened in Kentucky.”

As soon as they got to the White House, the Wildcats did what they had throughout the season.

They stayed together as a pack one last time, taking pictures with their iPhones, enjoying a fast-paced tour as quick as the run Kentucky put on Baylor in the Elite Eight.

National player of the year and projected No. 1 pick Anthony Davis as well as Doron Lamb, Marquis Teague, Terrence Jones, Miller and Kidd-Gilchrist were dressed in fine-tailored suits, not Kentucky uniforms. But they were a team just the same.

They loved cruising through the White House movie theater, posed in front of a bust of Abraham Lincoln, and just enjoyed each other’s company.

“I may never coach another group like this,’’ Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I’ve never seen a group come together for each other since I’ve been coaching.’’

Lamb said that this team truly liked being with each other on and off the court. This group was selfless from the first game to the final against Kansas in New Orleans.

Miller couldn’t get over how wild his UK career has been. He was recruited by Billy Gillispie, grew and fostered under Calipari, won a title and met two presidents. Former President Bill Clinton was in Lexington recently.

“This is just another great memory to add to the collection,’’ Miller said.

Kentucky had a traveling party of 51 (would you expect anything smaller?). And while the Wildcats played in front of 70,000-plus at the Superdome, this rivaled the anxiety of that night.

The players said they were a bit more nervous walking out on the Dome court, but there were anxious moments in meeting Obama and being on this smaller, albeit historic stage.

Calipari, who spoke after the President, was as anxious as anyone.

“I was just so nervous,’’ Calipari said. “I didn’t breath until I stepped away from the podium. I’ve given speeches to 15,000 and I was more nervous doing this.’’

But now that the celebration of the title is over, the Wildcats will go their separate ways. The semester is finished. The early-entrants will select agents and get ready for the NBA draft. Miller and Eloy Vargas, the two seniors, will prepare for their post-college life, which will include professional basketball.

Freshman Kyle Wiltjer is the lone productive returenee. He said it will be odd to lose all of these players, but he’s up for the challenge and said he can’t wait to play with the new players.

Kentucky brought in another strong class, a new crop, this time led by another star in the middle named Nerlens Noel.

But for Friday, for one last time in front of a strong, loud and proud contingent from Big Blue Nation, the 2012 champs were together.

“We had such a special group of guys and had such a successful year,’’ Jones said. “For this to be the last thing is such a great way to finish.’’
Nerlens Noel Mark L. Baer/US PresswireNerlens Noel gives Kentucky the top-five recruit that marks a typical John Calipari class.

Kentucky is Kentucky, and UCLA is back.

Those are the two immediate takeaways from Wednesday night’s big college hoops recruiting announcements, when the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the Class of 2012 -- center Nerlens Noel and small forward Shabazz Muhammad -- announced their decisions within an hour of each other live on ESPNU.

The final result? Muhammad chose UCLA. Noel chose Kentucky. Life in Westwood immediately got brighter. Life in Lexington remained almost unfairly good. And despite all the anticipation and hype, in the end, neither of these decisions was particularly surprising.

UCLA coach Ben Howland was long the favorite to land Muhammad. The Las Vegas native never revealed his intentions, but the recruiting rumor mill -- I’m hearing UCLA, it’s definitely UCLA, that sort of thing -- always seemed to peg Muhammad as a future Bruin. Even after Howland endured the most embarrassing moment of his career this spring, thanks to Sports Illustrated writer George Dohrmann’s evisceration, Muhammad’s family didn’t discount the program or wave it off. Indeed, the Bruins’ recent downward spiral was apparently an attraction.

“Knowing how bad they were the last two years, it’s a challenge to get them back up to the top,” Muhammad said.

That’s good news for UCLA, because he is right: The Bruins and their head coach are indeed desperately in need of a massive, wholesale turnaround in production and perception in the years to come. After disappointing, disjointed seasons in two of the past three years, fans openly revolted against the program in 2012.

Now, with Muhammad and fellow top-five recruit Kyle Anderson on board, as well as the Wear twins and still-promising, still-frustrating forward Joshua Smith, the Bruins have a legitimate chance to make a run at the Pac–12 title in 2012–13. In the meantime, athletics director Dan Guerrero will unveil a newly renovated Pauley Pavilion, hoping this influx of talent can revitalize a fan base that tuned its beloved Bruins out for much of the past three seasons.

“Hopefully we can sell out Pauley Pavilion,” Muhammad said.

The kid gets it. The stink of recent Westwood frustration won’t dissipate overnight. But with his talents on board, Howland can still change his program’s dire narrative while he still has time.

John Calipari has no such problem. You saw the Wildcats in March: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague were each the top players at their respective positions in the Class of 2011, and as they mixed and congealed with sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones (and senior Darius Miller), Calipari morphed them into one of the most dominant national title teams of the past 20 years -- and easily the most dominant in the one-and-done era.

That was a special talent haul, one that can’t easily be duplicated. But Calipari remains on a roll: He landed the No. 1 class in the country in 2011, the No. 1 class in the country in 2010, and the No. 1 class in the country in 2009, when John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe paved the way.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Muhammad
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesShabazz Muhammad appears eager to help with UCLA's desperately needed image repair.
At this point, you can write it in ink each and every spring: Calipari will have the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, or something very close to it. As such, it wasn’t even remotely surprising to see the top player in the country, Noel, commit to the Wildcats on Wednesday night. By the time Noel revealed his choice on the ESPNU set -- with the added flair of the UK logo shaved into the back of his now-famous high-top fade -- much of the social media world and those who follow such things were convinced the choice was Georgetown.

Silly people. Did you really think Coach Cal was going to go 0-for-2 tonight? Come on now.

Calipari was already off to a great start on the recruiting trail this year -- top–20 players Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress signed on last fall -- but he was still missing the elite, top-five talent that has become a regular fixture in his classes since his days at Memphis. The search is over.

Noel’s commitment is not only crucial in a vacuum -- he is a massive and athletic center who specializes in dominant interior shot-blocking -- but it rounds out UK’s on-court balance, too. Noel will anchor the post. Goodwin and Poythress will star on the wings. Sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer, a top–20 recruit who barely cracked the rotation in 2012 (as good an indication of the Wildcats’ talent as any), will take on a much larger role. And NC State transfer Ryan Harrow, the No. 10-ranked point guard in the Class of 2010 who left the Wolfpack after Sidney Lowe’s firing last season, will take over the all-important on-ball role.

Noel’s proclivity for swats will immediately invite comparison to the departing Davis, and Noel may well be a better shot-blocker than the Unibrowed One. But beyond that, the comparisons may be a little too eager. Davis was a physical freak who gained his physicality late in his high school career, when he sprouted 8 inches but somehow maintained his guard skills and agility. He was transcendent on both ends of the court, almost from Day 1.

By contrast, Noel is a lifelong big man, one whose offensive game remains very raw. (Though he shares at least this much with Davis: In a world full of 6-foot–10 prospects determined to play small forward, Noel is more than content to play as close to the rim as possible.) Likewise, for as promising as Poythress and Goodwin are, it’s clear there is no Kidd-Gilchrist -- whose combination of NBA talent and selflessness set the tone for UK’s special 2012 season -- to be found here, at least as far as we can tell right now.

Not that Kentucky fans will complain. Just a week after the program’s eighth national title, UK fans just watched live as the top recruit in the country committed to Big Blue Nation. A repeat of 2012’s dominance is too much to ask. But with another batch of talent arriving in Lexington this summer, Calipari’s unique ability to transform disparate freshmen into coherent, disciplined teams and a wide-open 2012–13 landscape, a repeat national title run is hardly out of the question.

At least one thing is clear: With Noel on board, the state of Big Blue Nation remains strong. And very, very talented.

It’s true: Life is good in Lexington.

In fact, it only seems to get better.
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, 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.

NEW ORLEANS -- Doron Lamb made quite an impression on John Calipari -- in August.

“He’s our best basketball player,’’ Calipari said on Aug. 8 to

“[Doron] can take the pressure off those freshmen so they don’t have to be anyone else but themselves.’’

Who knew that Lamb would be the most productive player in the national title game.

Lamb wasn’t the most dominant. That honor went to national player of the year Anthony Davis, who was able to finish off Kansas with 16 rebounds, six blocks and five assists in Kentucky’s 67-59 national championship win Monday night at the Superdome.

Lamb was the most offensive of any player wearing white Monday night.

He finished with 22 points, making three 3s and becoming the type of player who wins titles -- the one who is left open and seems to be the least discussed during all the pregame talk.

“You saw it,’’ said Calipari Monday night. “At shootaround he was unbelievable. I told him and the team that he was going to have 25, you watch. And he went about it the right way and prepared to play great and he did.’’

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Doron Lamb
Mark Cornelison/Getty ImagesDoron Lamb hit three 3-pointers on his way to a game-high 22 points in the national title game.
Kansas couldn’t find Lamb, especially in the first half.

“He played excellent,’’ Davis said. “He shot the ball well, pushed it in transition and didn’t get rattled. He didn’t get outmuscled.’’

Lamb helped extend the Wildcats’ lead into double figures fast.

“It feels great,’’ said Lamb of the title and his performance. “I told coach Cal at shootaround that I would have a great game. I had to turn out a big game and I made a ton of shots so I’m happy for my team. I’m happy for my teammates and I’m happy for myself.’’

Lamb said earlier this weekend that he spent a recruiting Midnight Madness in Lawrence but ultimately chose Kentucky over Kansas. Lamb is from Queens so he would have been a major hit for a New York-area school had he decided to stay home. But as soon as he went to Oak Hill Academy (Va.) he was national.

And, of course, by going to Kentucky he knew he gave up the chance to be a star.

He had his moments with Kentucky, scoring 32 points in a win over Winthrop last year. He had a few 26-point games earlier this season. But Lamb was never a primary option.

Davis was the focal point. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was the drive on this team, always ready to make a play. Marquis Teague was the point. Terrence Jones was a matchup slasher and Darius Miller was a glue guy who could change the tone of the game.

But Lamb was always lurking as the Wildcats’ top shooter.

He saved his best for last.

Who knows if this means he’ll go to the NBA draft. He shouldn’t bolt when he has the chance to be a front-line star next season. He deserves his turn to be the focus on the perimeter.

“When I first got here, all they talked about was [title] No. 8 and now I’m sure it’s going crazy,’’ Lamb said. “I just had to make shots and be aggressive on offense.’’

Lamb seized the opportunity. That’s all anybody could ask and now he has a lifetime memory for himself and for Kentucky.

NEW ORLEANS -- The immediate reaction to Kentucky's 67-59 national championship win over Kansas:

Overview: Kentucky fans, breathe easy. The coronation is complete.

We expected a coronation, and that's exactly how much of this game went. Kentucky jumped out to a big lead early, extended it to as many as 18 points in the first half, went to the half with a 41-27 lead, and was never truly threatened throughout the second half.

How? The Wildcats were, as they have been all tournament, comprehensively good. They shot 16-of-30 in the first half, using every manner of attack -- at the rim and from the perimeter, jump shots and isolation drives, you name it -- in ways Kansas, one of the nation's best defenses all season, couldn't hope to match.

Meanwhile, the Wildcats might have been even better on the defensive end, especially in the second half. Kansas never got anything easy, and Anthony Davis was everywhere: He blocked three shots in the first half and six for the game (and changed countless more), while skying high over Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey to grab what felt like every rebound. Robinson shot 6-for-17, Withey just 2-of-8; both were stymied all night by Davis and the ever-active quick-handed Cats defense. The KU big men needed to have a big game -- and Kansas' defense needed to play all 40 minutes very well, as Jayhawks coach Bill Self said this weekend -- to have a real chance of upsetting this Kentucky team. Neither happened.

Turning point: But that doesn't mean Kentucky didn't have to sweat. Oh, Big Blue Nation had to sweat. Of course it did.

With 10 minutes left in the second half, Kansas looked poised to go on its traditional second-half run. Robinson converted a dunk, Tyshawn Taylor made a fast-break layup, and the lead was cut to 10 at 48-38. Jayhawks fans were rowdy. The momentum seemed to shift. And then Doron Lamb struck. Lamb's back-to-back 3-pointers moved the lead back to 16 points, Kansas still couldn't get easy shots to cut the deficit, and Kentucky maintained a double-digit lead until the five-minute mark.

That's when Taylor came alive. The Kansas senior (somehow) sank a deep 2-pointer over Davis, followed by a fast-break, one-on-two layup and the foul. That cut the lead to nine -- the closest the game had been since midway through the first half -- and by the under-four timeout, Kansas fans had regained hope that this unlikely team had another unlikely comeback left in the tank. The lead closed to seven on two Robinson free throws, then grew to 10 again on a Marquis Teague 3, then went back to 7 as Johnson hit a wide-open answer of his own. Teague took another top-of-the-key jumper, but this one missed, and Robinson nearly completed a 3-point play on a surprising pass from Withey.

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Anthony Davis
Bob Donnan/US PRESSWIREAnthony Davis took charge of the national title game, filling the stat sheet with 6 points, 16 rebounds, 6 blocks, 5 assists and 3 steals.
Robinson knocked down both free throws, cutting the lead to five. And after Kentucky nearly turned the ball over, Jones corralled it and sent it to Davis, who made one of two free throws and kept the lead relatively safe at six, with just 1:11 left to play.

Self drew up a backcut play for Taylor out of a timeout. Taylor caught it going at the rim but was defended and blocked by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Later, with the lead still at six, the Jayhawks found Johnson open in the corner. Johnson lifted to take a 3. But Davis flew out to challenge the shot, forcing Johnson to drop the ball, travel, and give it back to UK. Lamb sealed the game with two free throws with 17 seconds left, and UK fans were finally free to cheer. Coach John Calipari hugged his staff. The national championship was official. The coronation, which came with no small share of stress, was real.

Key player: Anthony Davis. You watched the game, so you saw him in action. When have we seen a collegiate player with the ability to thoroughly control a game without scoring a point, as he did in the first half. When have we seen a player who can shoot 1-for-10 from the field and still be the best on the floor for much of the contest? His final line: 6 points, 16 rebounds, 6 blocks, 5 assists, 3 steals.

There's a reason Davis has so dominated this season, and tournament, why he'll be the obvious No. 1 pick in a loaded 2012 draft: He is simply on another level than his competition. Never was that more obvious than on the game's biggest stage.

Key stat: Kansas shot just 17-of-51 from inside the arc. All season, the Jayhawks' interior play has been their main offensive strength, but Kentucky's defense was too much, and even a 5-of-11 night from 3-point territory wasn't enough to make up for it. The Jayhawks finished well below the one-point-per-possession mark, and their inability to finish in the low block -- thank Davis (as well as Jones and Darius Miller) for that -- was the reason why.

What's next: Kentucky will go down as one of the best teams of the past decade, and maybe longer, a dominant force comprised not only of talent, but of complementary pieces -- a real team in every sense of the word. They were unstoppable in this tournament, and Davis, who dominated this Final Four and his team's final game in every way imaginable, will be remembered as the most successful one-and-done talent since Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to the national title. Tonight was the crowning achievement of Davis' short but wondrous collegiate career, and we'll never forget it.

This was also the crowning achievement of Calipari's much-debated coaching career, the season in which his best-in-class ability to acquire the best talent in the country, and mold that talent into quality college basketball teams, paid the ultimate dividends. He found a once-in-a-generation talent (Davis) and a fearless, selfless warrior (Kidd-Gilchrist), and put those two pieces alongside at least three or four other potential NBA players. By the end of the season, this team had no holes. It was something close to flawless.

Calipari will always be controversial, but there's nothing controversial about the season this team had or the role its coach played in guiding it.
NEW ORLEANS -- Iowa State and Baylor have played each of the participants in Monday night’s NCAA championship game between Kentucky and Kansas. Here is a breakdown of each team by the head coach of each program as well as a player.


You’ve got the two elite shot-blockers in the country in [Jeff] Withey and Anthony Davis. The big thing for Kansas is their transition game. They’re so good at getting out and running. Against Kentucky, if you’re setting up in the half court every time down the floor, you’re going to be grinding it out against that length and athleticism. It’s going to be very difficult to score. From Kansas’ standpoint, the more they attack, they better off they’ll be. They’ve got players capable of doing that with [Tyshawn] Taylor and [Elijah] Johnson spacing the floor. I really think they need to attack before Kentucky gets a chance to set up in that half-court defense where they’re so effective. For Kentucky, Anthony Davis can do so many things. He’s expanded his game as the season has gone on. You have to be so selective on when you try to take it at him, because when he blocks a shot, it usually leads to a layup on the other end.

When Kentucky is in their transition game, you’re not going to stop them, so the other thing Kansas has to do a good job of is taking care of the basketball. They’ve got to limit their turnovers and get up quality shots, and try to get Kentucky into a half-court game going back the other way, which is pretty tough to do. When Kentucky is hitting shots, they’re almost unbeatable. It starts with [Marquis] Teague. If he can get that thing out there and beat everyone in transition, everyone collapses in. That’s how they get all those lobs. If you can take away those highlight plays by Kentucky, that hurts their mojo a little bit. But they’re so fast and explosive, that’s very difficult to do.

With Kansas, Bill [Self] has done as good of a coaching job as anyone in the country this year. You look at what they lost, with the Morris twins and [Brady] Morningstar and [Tyrel] Reed ... Bill still found a way to build his new guys up and to get them to play with so much confidence. That’s a testament to Bill and his staff. Bill is as good as there is in this business. It’s fun to compete against him, and it’s great to have him in our league. Tyshawn is the key to their team. He’s what makes them go. He gets it up and down the floor so quickly. You’ve got to do your best to stay in front of him. They’re using a lot of pick-and-roll in their offense. Tyshawn has handled that very well and shown he can make the right decisions. They're so precise in their offense. I think they’ve got a shot. Don’t ever count out Bill Self. Every time they look like they're down and out, they find a way to come back. If Kentucky is hitting their shots, there just isn’t much you can do. But if they’re having an off night, and Kansas is hitting their shots, they have a very good chance to win.


[The Wildcats] have great length at pretty much every position. Even if they don’t call out a screen quick enough, they can just switch everything because they [have] such a great help side on their defense. They can cover up minor mistakes. When we played them, [Darius] Miller played really well. Teague played really well. He hit some outside shots. When those two and [Doron] Lamb are hitting their outside shots -- combined with their inside game -- they’re pretty much impossible to stop. On defense, they have guys that are good perimeter defenders, but more than anything, even if you are able to get by them, they have such good length, even on the help side. ... You’re just not used to playing against guys like Anthony Davis and [Michael Kidd-]Gilchrist and Jones -- guys that can just come from the weak side out of nowhere and get your shots. We shot the ball very poorly from 3 because we had never seen length like that. At times you’re actually able to get into the paint on them. I’m not saying they’re not good perimeter defenders, because they are. But it’s not like they’re impossible to get by.

The problem is that you have to expend so much energy getting by them, and then you’ve got Anthony Davis waiting for you at the rim -- it poses a lot of problems. If you’ve got a guy on the low block that can really be physical, it will certainly help. Kansas will be able to utilize Thomas Robinson, because he’s physical and very strong. I’m sure Kansas is hoping he’ll be able to get some easy baskets inside and maybe draw some fouls on Kentucky’s big guys. The biggest thing is just getting the ball moved from one side of the court to the other. If you come down and just have it sit on one side and try to break Kentucky down that way, with their length, you’re not going to be very successful. I would try to drive the ball into the paint and kick it out as many times as I could. But I’d get as many paint touches as I could and get the defense distorted as much as possible. And if you can get out in transition and get some easy buckets, that will help your confidence, too. Kansas has always been very good in transition.

With Kansas, we were able to do a good job of mixing up our post defenses on Robinson. Defensively, we played about as well as anyone did against them in both of our games. You’re going to have to rebound and be physical with them. Defensively they’re always in position. They’re very well-coached, very disciplined. You just have to be very sharp and solid. You can’t try to be a hero against them. You have to make simple plays and play very hard. I think Kentucky’s length makes them a little bit better defensively, just because they’ve got guys like Kidd-Gilchrist that can guard the 4-man or the point guard. But Kansas, year-in-and-year-out, is the best team in the Big 12 defensively. Withey has come a really long way. He does a good job of doing what he does. He blocks shots, runs the court, rebounds, finishes around the rim. To me, the difference in the game is going to be who wins between Doron Lamb and Darius Miller, and Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford. And Tyshawn Taylor has to outplay Teague. Johnson is a really good defender. And when he’s able to stretch the defense with his perimeter shot, it does a lot of things for Kansas. When you have to close out long on him, it gives Robinson so much more room to work on the inside.


You have to score in transition if you want to have any shot of beating Kentucky. You can’t just hope to score in the half court against them. They’re so good defensively. You have to get easy ones when you can. When you can’t, you really have to make them work on the defensive end. Kansas will do that. But you also have to get some easy ones, and Kansas has always done a great job of pushing it. If Kansas is scoring and not turning it over, that means Kentucky isn’t getting out and running. And if Kentucky isn’t getting out and running, Kansas has a chance. Sometimes people make the mistake of saying, ‘OK, we want to slow it down and play a half-court game against Kentucky.’ That means they never push it and get easy buckets. I don’t know if you can score enough to beat them if you slow it down.

Juniors and seniors don’t want to go home. Kansas is very good, but out of almost all of the good tournament teams, they’ve had the most experience. They start all juniors and seniors, and juniors like Releford and Withey are four-year guys. They’re starting three fourth-year guys and two true juniors. That’s a veteran group. The more experienced at something, the better you are at what you do. They’ve been there, done that. It may mean more to them because they’ve been there three or four years. So they have the experience, but they also have that mental toughness. Winning a national championship may mean more to them than it does a freshman.

When Withey is on, Kansas goes to another level. You know what you’re going to get night in and night out from Tyshawn and Thomas. But if you had Withey knocking down shots and rebounding and scoring, they’re on another level. In their two wins against us, he was the difference. Tyshawn Taylor is probably the main key, though. If you keep Tyshawn from getting it in the paint, and if you can keep him from creating for others ... you can guard Thomas Robinson if you don’t give him angles and just play solidly behind him. And Withey, if he doesn’t catch it deep, I don’t know how bad he’s going to hurt you. But the reason Robinson is able to get angles, and the reason Withey is able to catch it deep is because of Tyshawn’s ability to get into the paint. He’s as good with his first step and at blowing by defenders as any point guard in the country.


[Kentucky's] athleticism can be overwhelming, even to us. They’ve got five guys that can handle the ball. Their outlet passes are so impressive. One second after they rebound, the ball is at half court. They get out in transition so quick. They can all handle it. It makes things easy for them. Defensively, Anthony Davis gets a lot of attention for blocking shots, but the guys on the perimeter really pressure the ball. I was watching yesterday, and Louisville would dribble around for 15 or 20 seconds because they were having so much trouble getting it into the paint and getting Kentucky in foul trouble.

Teague can guard. He’s fast. Tyshawn Taylor is probably a little stronger than him. Lamb is strong. Kidd-Gilchrist can defend 1 through 4. Jones is so physical, and then Davis has that great length. You’ve got to do a good job of answering their runs and hope to get some easy baskets. When you try to slow it down, on defense they can really stop you. They forced us into taking bad shots, and they forced us into turnovers. Those result in the first pass of their transition offense. They run the floor and convert it, and get to the free throw line.

Kansas is an amazing team with all of their pieces. They’ve got strong guys that are athletic and physical. They play well and they defend. Kentucky, statistically, is the best defensive team. But Kansas on defense is ridiculous. They rotate like a machine. They’ve got Withey blocking shots. Releford is a great defender, and so are Taylor and Johnson. Those guys are relentless on defense, and they can get out and run, too. It should be an up-and-down game. Taylor is the key for them. At this time of year, you’ve got to have a great point guard to still be playing. He does a great job of scoring and making things happen, because he’s so athletic. Once he gets going, that’s a tough freight train to stop. He does a great job of getting into the paint. If he gets into the paint against Kentucky and guys help out, he can throw lobs to Robinson and Withey. I think it could be a good game. Kansas is too good of a team and Bill Self is too good of a coach to let it get out of hand. It’ll be a close game.

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.

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Anthony Davis
Richard Mackson/US PRESSWIREAnthony 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.

[+] EnlargeKansas' Elijah Johnson
Chris Steppig/US PRESSWIREElijah 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.

NEW ORLEANS -- A quick look at Kentucky’s 69-61 victory over Louisville in Saturday's first national semifinal.

Overview: The commonwealth of Kentucky’s Game for the Ages boiled down to the simplest principle in sport -- talent wins.

Louisville gave the archrival Wildcats all they could handle, coming back time and again from double-digit deficits, but guts and spunk simply don’t overrun talent.

And Kentucky has it in droves, thanks in large part to the lanky body that is Anthony Davis.

The national player of the year was simply too much for the Cardinals to handle, scoring 18 points and denying who knows how many for Louisville.

Never a good offensive team this season, Louisville kept it close by rebounding its misses to the tune of a 19-6 edge on the offensive glass, but in the end Kentucky was too good, claiming state bragging rights that will linger among generations and families for years.

Turning point: After Peyton Siva hit a 3 to tie the game 49-49 and ignite the already-well-ignited Mercedes-Benz Superdome crowd with just over nine minutes to play, the Cardinals failed to convert another field goal for more than six minutes.

Louisville couldn’t get a good shot -- some of which was self-induced, but mostly thanks to the always-imposing presence of Davis.

Kentucky nudged its way to a 55-51 lead and then, with 5:07 left, Marquis Teague flipped a pass to senior Darius Miller in transition. The senior swished the 3-point dagger.

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Anthony Davis
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesAnthony Davis scored 18 points to go with 14 rebounds and 5 blocks against Louisville.
Key stat: The Wildcats shot 57 percent from the floor, putting together a terrific offensive night against a team that ranked No. 1 in defensive efficiency.

Key player: Davis seems like a good pick. Seriously, he is an athletic freak in the best sense of the word and was absolutely everywhere for Kentucky. He finished with 18 points, 14 rebounds, 5 blocks, 2 assists and a steal. And he played 39 minutes.

Unfortunately the box score does not take into account altered or influenced shots -- because Davis might have set an NCAA record there.

If Louisville got inside, the Cardinals thought twice about shooting -- and if they dared to take a shot, they sent up such high-arcing floaters they nearly reached the Superdome roof.

Davis was spectacular on a night when two of his teammates, Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, were average, adding even more to the crucial impact the freshman had on the game.

Miscellaneous: Kentucky has won 40 consecutive games when leading at the half, dating back to Feb. 1, 2011, against Ole Miss. … A Louisville cheerleader taken out by Jones returned in the second half. Word is she had four stitches during the break.

What’s next: Kentucky, hands down the best team in the country, looks to claim its first title since 1998 on Monday night against Kansas.
NEW ORLEANS -- The circus is just a short walk away.

Here's how you get there: Step out of the Louisiana Superdome onto Poydras Street, swing a left on Carandolet and follow it through downtown New Orleans until you reach Bourbon Street. This is the French Quarter, where everything you assumed about this Final Four has come true.

Yes, the Kentucky fans are everywhere. They congregate in bars and saunter down Bourbon with beers in clear plastic cups, and the atmosphere is equal parts Big Easy and anticipation: This is Big Blue's national title to win. Only those pesky Louisville Cardinals and a championship game -- it doesn't really matter who it is -- stand inconveniently in the way.

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Anthony Davis
Bob Donnan/US PRESSWIREAnthony Davis and Kentucky are avoiding the circus on Bourbon Street.
When you walk back to the Superdome and take another series of turns, you may (with proper accreditation, of course) find yourself in Kentucky's locker room. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist squats with a towel on his shoulder. Marquis Teague leans back in his padded chair. Anthony Davis (somehow) hunches into his locker ledge. Darius Miller and Terrence Jones casually saunter back from the press room podium, sit down, and begin answering the same questions being asked of their teammates.

What does this mean to your fans? Are you guys feeling any pressure as the favorites? Do you feel the hype? How are you staying focused?

It is a credit to this Kentucky team, and the coach who leads them -- and perhaps to the circus-like atmosphere that always pervades this program, making this week nothing more than a slight enhancement -- that no matter how many times these questions are rephrased and re-asked, no matter how often the circus tries to invade the pristine calm of this locker room, the Wildcats couldn't be seem more relaxed.

"I can't wait to play, I'm ready to get started," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "It's a lot of talking and stuff like that, but I just want to play the game of basketball."

What about the massive Superdome gym, the imposingly raised floor?

"It's a lot of seats," Kidd-Gilchrist deadpanned. "It's just a regular floor to me."

As Miller admitted, this team is, if anything, tired of hearing about What This Game Means. Coach John Calipari has kept them "above the fray," as he put it, and the strategy appears to have worked. Bourbon Street and its sweaty, beer-swilling, trash-talking circus were offered no quarters in the sanctuary of the Kentucky locker room Friday. There is only calm, businesslike focus to be found here.

"I know the fans on both sides are going crazy, and that's great," Calipari said. "That's part of why you do this thing. But we're not buying into it. I don't believe their team is buying into it.

"If you want to buy into the drama, then you buy into it," Calipari said. "If you want to play basketball, we're playing a terrific basketball team tomorrow at five o'clock. That's all we're dealing with."
John Calipari, Rick PitinoUS Presswire/Getty ImagesKentucky coach John Calipari and Louisville coach Rick Pitino have spent the week divising game plans. How will they approach their Final Four matchups?
By Saturday, John Calipari, Rick Pitino, Thad Matta and Bill Self will have had nearly a week to scout their opponents. As we type, they're breaking down film, analyzing their opponents' strengths and weaknesses and searching for ways to impart this knowledge to their players in simple, digestible form. They are ... pause for dramatic effect ... game-planning.

What will each come up with? We don't exactly know. That's why they're coaches in the Final Four, and we are, you know, not. But we can still venture a guess. In the first of a two-part series, here's a look at what they may be coming up with.

Up first: Louisville vs. Kentucky

Kentucky Wildcats

Offense: All week Calipari has told his team -- at least, according to his public appearances -- he isn't worried about the rivalry, or winning a national championship, or any of the pressure UK fans can't help but place on a team that is expected by almost everyone to bring home the program's eighth national championship this season. Instead, Calipari says, he is worried only that UK "plays its best basketball."

This is an entirely appropriate approach. Simply put: When UK plays its best basketball, particularly on the offensive end of the floor, the Wildcats are essentially impossible to stop. We've seen as much in the tournament (UK scored an insane 1.27 points per possession in its four south region wins) and before it (when Kentucky scored 1.20 points per possession in its 16-0 SEC regular-season run).

What makes UK so good? It isn't any one thing. Stylistically, the Cats don't rely on any one trait; rather, via Ken Pomeroy, they rank in the top 20 in the nation in effective field goal percentage, turnover rate and offensive rebounding percentage. They can score in the half court and on the break; according to Synergy Sports Technologies scouting data, UK ranks in the 95th percentile in efficiency in half-court situations and the 87th percent in transition. Their most frequently used play type this season was the spot-up jumper, which they used on 22.5 percent of possessions, but Calipari's offense is diverse, utilizing ball screens, handoffs, cuts, isolations and straight post-ups throughout the season.

The only slight knock on this offense (if you can even call it that)? It was slightly worse against zone defenses than man defenses this season. Kentucky scored 0.971 points per possession against man-to-man in 2012. Its points per trip dropped slightly, to 0.956, against the zone. That's hardly a major drop-off.

When you have Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb and Darius Miller, you can penetrate the lane, work off screens, dominate the boards, get easy buckets and knock down outside shots when needed. You don't have to change what you do for anybody, including the Louisville Cardinals.

One would imagine that is the real gist of Calipari's message this week: If we do what we do well, no one can keep us from scoring.

Defense: Kentucky's defense isn't as good as its offense. The Wildcats' real strength is scoring the rock, sure, but at No. 11 in the nation in defensive efficiency, per KenPom, UK guards well enough that it could be a merely decent offensive team and still be worthy of a trip to the Final Four.

Newsflash: Kentucky is really good.

The Wildcats' primary concern on the defensive end should be the prevention of transition buckets. That stems from the offense, of course, which means Marquis Teague and the rest of the Wildcats will have to limit their turnovers, grab offensive rebounds and recover back on defense before the Cardinals can get a head of steam. But it mostly means picking up on the secondary break.

Louisville would like nothing better than to get fast-break layups, of course, but it will be just as satisfied with pushing the pace on long rebounds and odd-man situations, finding trailing shooters and open men in the corner -- namely guard Kyle Kuric. Kentucky's primary focus, then, won't be on whether it can stop Louisville in the half court. Of course, it can. This defense is great; Louisville's half-court offense isn't. The Wildcats will have to focus almost entirely on making sure Louisville doesn't get shots off from long range.

If they do, even if Louisville's defense bogs them down, it's hard to imagine the Cardinals scoring frequently enough to keep this thing close. Can you picture it? Because I can't.

TL;DR game plan: Don't get flustered by pressure, run our stuff, do what we do. On defense, run everybody off the 3-point line. (Simple enough, right?)

Louisville Cardinals

Defense: Since the start of the Big East tournament, Louisville has won eight straight games, changed its style of play more than a few times, held opponents to a combined .88 points per trip and rocketed up Pomeroy's defensive efficiency rankings, where it currently sits at No. 1 overall.

In other words: If any defense in the country can slow Kentucky's offense right now, it's this one.

How will the Cardinals go about doing it?

According to Synergy, in the NCAA tournament, Louisville has played man on 152 possessions, or 57.6 percent of the time, and it has allowed just 0.737 points per trip to opponents. Pitino has used his zone on 112 possessions, or 42.4 percent of the time, when it has ceded 0.786 points per trip. (Those numbers are slightly skewed by that Florida first half, but they're valid all the same.) The Cardinals are at their weakest defensively in transition, where they've allowed 0.963 points per trip. But those possessions (just 27 in the tournament) have been few and far between.

So it is that Pitino has a series of choices to make. The man is rarely predictable, and his stylistic approach is never cut and dry. That's why his team is here: It can spring surprises (see Michigan State), change styles on the fly (see Florida) and execute almost anything Pitino asks. No wonder he loves this team so much.

So what does he choose? How does he seek to stop this juggernaut Kentucky attack?

The first is pressure: Louisville will almost certainly pressure full-court Teague and UK's other ball handlers after every made shot. There may not be many of those, but the pressure might apply to misses, too -- the more you can make the game difficult for Kentucky before the ball crosses half court, the better chance you have of upsetting their pristine, business-like offensive rhythm. Pitino may tell Smith and Siva to pressure the ball immediately, no matter what, to speed up the game, to create havoc in the backcourt and to wear on Teague (Kentucky's lone true point guard) as much as possible.

Once the ball crosses half court, he may have to resort to the zone. Kentucky can shoot it, no question, and it has the kinds of players capable of breaking down the zone off the dribble (and that's when the Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones lobs start flying in). But on a sheer man-to-man scale, Louisville can't match up, nor should it try. A hybrid matchup zone could turn Kentucky into a passing team, one that can't work off Calipari's screen-roll-replace and handoff action, one that helps to nullify touches in the post, one that prevents simple isolations for UK's brilliant scorers.

With a typical diet of effective slapping and digging, the turnovers may come. But if not, at least Louisville won't have to shade double-teams and work back to shooters and scramble around the court just to keep up.

Offense: Which is where the offense comes in. The game can never be approached merely as a two-sided affair; offense bleeds into defense and vice-versa for every team. But that's especially true for Louisville. And even more so for this game.

Simply put, the Cardinals are not a great offensive team. Their eight-game run to the Final Four hasn't changed that fact. Their most efficient scoring in the tournament (41 points in 30 possessions) has come in transition. In the half court, they've been merely OK, scoring 0.849 points per possession in 252 possessions.

The Cardinals' most frequently used half-court play -- a high ball screen -- has yielded just 0.739 points per trip in the tournament. They've achieved similar results with post-up plays and isolations. Indeed, Louisville's best offense has come when the game is moving. Of the 11 general play types Synergy tracks, the Cardinals are most efficient when finding cutters, battling for offensive rebounds, dishing to the screener off a pick-and-roll, on spot-ups and in "miscellaneous" plays, which usually involve some type of scramble around the rim.

Unlike its opponent, Louisville has to actively generate ways to score. And in this game, that means pace.

The Cardinals will look to run at every chance, and why not? They're better in transition, and you'd much rather try to score on Kentucky before Davis has a chance to get back to fully cordon off the middle of the lane. This strategy assumes you can turn the Wildcats over, or make them miss shots and get long rebounds. That's no easy feat. But it is the best chance Louisville has of putting up points on its opponents in any meaningful way. And hey, it worked for Indiana's offense. The Hoosiers just couldn't get a stop.

Besides, the other option -- a staid half-court game -- simply isn't going to work.

With pressure, a tricky zone, up-tempo attack and a scrambling style around the rim, the Cardinals can dictate the terms of the engagement. Against a team this good, with players this talented, that is Pitino's best chance of knocking off the rival Kentucky Wildcats. Even Malcolm Gladwell would have to agree.

TL;DR game plan: Pressure Teague whenever possible, switch into a matchup zone to make the Wildcats adjust, force the tempo at every opportunity, find open shooters on the secondary break, hope for the best.

South preview: Baylor vs. Kentucky

March, 24, 2012

ATLANTA -- A look at Sunday's Elite Eight matchup between No. 1 Kentucky and No. 3 Baylor for the South Regional championship:

The marquee matchup

Anthony Davis vs. Perry Jones III: The last time Davis had to face a player with similar length, North Carolina was at Rupp Arena. Perry Jones III might not be strictly on Davis, but he’ll likely take a turn. The Bears also may use the brute strength of Quincy Acy to get under Davis’ skin at times.

“I always look forward to a challenge and I think Baylor brings a challenge,’’ Davis said. “They attack the rim. They’re very athletic and they can dunk the ball and finish above the rim. I’m looking forward to the challenge and hopefully we will prevail.’’

Kentucky coach John Calipari interrupted Davis and said, “Without fouling. Just don’t foul.’’

“No fouling,’’ Davis said.

Jones didn’t take the bait when asked about an individual matchup.

“I’m looking forward to playing team basketball,’’ Jones said. “I don’t want to feed into that because we haven’t fed into that all year, and we’ve been successful. Last thing I want to do is feed into that, trying to go one-on-one the whole game and not play team basketball, because our team will lose.’’

The impressive stat

Kentucky: The Wildcats scored 102 points and had just six turnovers in their 12-point victory over Indiana in the Sweet 16. Calipari said he was extremely impressed with the Wildcats’ composure. And his trust in Marquis Teague to lead this team has increased daily.

Baylor: Kentucky made 35 of 37 free throws against Indiana. Baylor didn’t create as much contact against Xavier, but the Bears did make their free throws. Baylor was 12-of-14, and if you’re looking for an advantage for Kentucky, check elsewhere. Baylor can make the late-game free throws to win a close game.

The shooters

Brady Heslip, Baylor: Heslip made nine 3s in a win over Colorado. He made of only 1 of 3 in the win over Xavier, but he cannot be left alone. He has made 15 3s in three games so far. If he can make his NCAA tournament average of five, the Bears should be in this game throughout.

Doron Lamb, Kentucky: Lamb can be the difference-maker for the Wildcats. He made his only 3-point attempt against Indiana, but in the previous round against Iowa State, Lamb converted 5 of 7. Lamb has had the ability to break out with huge games throughout his brief career. Like Heslip, he cannot be left alone.

The heart and soul

[+] EnlargeQuincy Acy
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesQuincy Acy, right, has been a dunking machine for Baylor; Perry Jones II has been an enigma.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky: No one plays harder for Kentucky. Kidd-Gilchrist continues to show he’s a must on the floor. Calipari loves coaching him and with good reason. He never has to get on him for effort. Kidd-Gilchrist will have a hard time against Baylor's length, and Quincy Miller or Anthony Jones could be guarding him at times. Still, he can power his way to the bucket and create contact and fouls.

Quincy Acy, Baylor: The Bears have tremendous length but don’t always use it to their advantage -- except for Acy. He has no problem getting on the low post and being a force. His dunks, especially off an inbounds against Xavier, were as impressive as you’ll see this season.

The playmakers

Kentucky's Teague vs. Baylor's Pierre Jackson: Both are playing their first year of Division I basketball, but Jackson is a junior college transfer and two years older.

Each runs a steady game and has the trust of his respective coach.

This should be an even matchup. Neither will take too many chances and both can easily create points off turnovers.

The glue guys

Kentucky's Darius Miller and Baylor's Quincy Miller: Darius Miller scored 19 points off the bench against Indiana. He has the most experience of any Kentucky player. He can get to the rim and make 3s. If Kentucky wins, it's probably because Miller had a solid outing. Quincy Miller has tremendous talent as well but doesn’t maximize it often. He can disappear at times and needs to be more assertive. He has a shot in this game to match up with someone like Darius Miller or possibly Terrence Jones and draw even more attention to himself and away from Perry Jones III or Acy.

The mystery

Kentucky's Terrence Jones vs. Baylor's Anthony Jones: Both players have loads of talent but must play within themselves. Kentucky’s Jones can get to the backboard but has to make intelligent decisions on offense. And he has of late. Baylor’s Jones has so much talent, can block shots and handle the ball. But he tends to shoot too much too soon. If he uses his length to his advantage, he can be a major factor in this game.

The coaches

Calipari: He was brought to Kentucky to get to Final Fours and win a title. His teams have advanced to the Elite Eight the past three years and in six of the past seven -- an achievement matched only by Mike Krzyzewski and the late John Wooden, according to Kentucky. The pressure is on Calipari to deliver another Final Four.

Scott Drew, Baylor: Drew has done wonders to resurrect this program and is in his second Elite Eight in three seasons. That alone is remarkable. He is playing with house money here. He has a Final Four team but is not expected to knock off Kentucky. A Final Four berth would certainly elevate Drew to another level among his peers.

ATLANTA -- What we saw Friday night was highly entertaining theater.

Kentucky and Indiana, two members of an elite collection of iconic college basketball programs, gave us all an enjoyable watch in the Sweet 16.

There was a pro mentality to this affair. It was as if two teams were out there to conduct the business of basketball. There were times it was just pure hoops.

If you wanted scoring, you got it.

Plenty of it.

Kentucky put up 102 points, the most scored against IU in 93 all-time tourney games. Indiana countered with 90 of its own. Before this shootout, no team in the entire tournament had reached 90 points.

In the end, UK moved on to its third consecutive Elite Eight, where it will play Baylor on Sunday. IU is heading home after a tremendously successful and memorable season.

Kentucky had to win this game with Anthony Davis playing limited minutes due to foul trouble. He played 25, yet was still highly effective. The national player of the year to many (he’s won four of the six awards so far) still was very efficient, with 12 rebounds and 3 blocks to go along with his 9 points.

“I got in early foul trouble,’’ said Davis. “By the second half, my teammates told me, 'You're fine. Just come out and play your game. We need you to steal, block shots, rebound and score the ball.'

“So that's what I did in the second half -- don't let the first half get to me and just come out with the same intensity the players came out with in the first half.”

And after the game, there was so much respect on both sides. There was no trash talk or bitterness. Kentucky coach John Calipari and Indiana coach Tom Crean are close friends and are genuinely pleased with each other’s success.

“Well, I'm truly happy for Indiana and Tom Crean,’’ Calipari said. “When he took that job, I told him, 'You are taking one of the top five jobs in our country in basketball. That's it. Indiana's it.'

“And he said, 'Cal, it's going to be hard.' Yeah, it's going to be hard, but it's Indiana. It's Indiana. So you'll get it going. Walking into Kentucky, it's hard, but it's Kentucky. It's North Carolina, it's Duke, it's Kansas. If you have one of those jobs, you have a chance to be a top-five program year in and year out. What he's done there, where it came from, you think about it. They lost 25 games their first year. He had a lot of people griping. Hey, you've got to build the foundation, and he did it.”

Crean returned the compliments: “We did a lot of good things, but they're a very talented team. As I said many times, I think it's obvious, they're extremely well-coached. He is a great coach. It's one thing to have talent; it's a whole other thing to get them to be as good as they are defensively.”

The players competed at a high level. And after the game, both sides gave each proper respect.

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Mark Cornelison/Getty ImagesMichael Kidd-Gilchrist, one of five Wildcats to reach double digits, scored 24 points against Indiana.
“They were knocking down shots, they were being really aggressive and getting to the rim,’’ said Kentucky senior Darius Miller. “We just had trouble guarding them. I don’t think we came out lacking intensity or lacking focus or anything like that. They just did a great job of executing their game plan and coming out ready to play.’’

There was something wholesome about this game, which is perfect considering these two schools are in the heartland of the country and the sport.

Their fan bases are two of the most passionate in the country. And while the Baylor-Xavier game was an undercard with a junior-varsity crowd that included empty seats, that was hardly the case for the nightcap. The fans showed and came to cheer. There were times when the Georgia Dome actually got loud, not easy considering the cavernous nature of this building.

Kentucky under Calipari is now like it was under Rick Pitino in the mid-1990s, where Final Fours are expected. UK went to three in a row from 1996 to 1998, winning two of the three — with Pitino claiming the first title and Tubby Smith the second in the third of three Final Fours. Calipari is 40 minutes away from his second consecutive Final Four in Lexington, third overall. But he has to win at least one national title, the first for the school since 1998, to live up to the expectations that were placed on him when he arrived, let alone compare to that Pitino run.

Indiana under Crean is now officially back. The Hoosiers were left in ruins after the Kelvin Sampson NCAA fiasco when departures had the program starting from scratch. After grinding it out the first three seasons, Crean now has reaped quite a turnaround, one that found the Hoosiers in the Sweet 16.

And they could have gone further. Indiana was down three at the half. The Hoosiers were constantly a few possessions away from pushing Kentucky. But they couldn’t contain the Wildcats' myriad offensive options.

The Cats were the aggressor, getting to the free throw line 37 times and making 35. The 94.6 percent mark was the highest in tourney history for a team with at least 30 attempts. But that was really the only clear advantage for Kentucky.

“They're great drivers, and they're attacking pretty hard throughout the game,’’ said Indiana freshman Cody Zeller. “Late in the game, we had to foul just to try to close the margin a little bit.

“They got in the bonus pretty early, and that really helped them out pretty well. And once they got there, they were knocking them down.”

Indiana had five scorers in double figures, led by Christian Watford’s season-high 27 points.

Kentucky also had five, led by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s 24, which tied a career-high.

For whatever reason, the Hoosiers chose not to guard MKG.

“I just saw that they weren’t playing me at all, saw it and went for it, that’s it,’’ the UK freshman said. “We just took turns. I mean, this was a great team win.’’

There is something special brewing with this Kentucky team.

The Wildcats can be vanilla at times. But that’s OK. They win. And they don’t need to boast or brag.

Now, there is one more game to get Sunday for Kentucky to reach its intended destination. Baylor can certainly win. This might be the one team, save a healthy North Carolina, that mirrors the Wildcats.

“It seems like there's only one team that is not allowed to lose in this tournament, and that's us,’’ Calipari said. “I don't want them to feel that. That's not the case. What I want them to do is go have a ball playing, be aggressive, play to win. If that's not good enough -- like, I'll be honest with you, folks. If you told me the team we're playing today, Indiana, was going to score 90 points and shoot 52 percent from the floor, I was going to have to tell you, 'Wow, it's been a nice season. Hate to end it that way, but it's been a nice season.'

“And we won. We played very aggressive and did stuff down the stretch that we needed to do offensively.”

ATLANTA -- Reaction from Kentucky's 102-90 victory over Indiana in the South Regional.

Overview: Kentucky was built for the Final Four and a national title.

Now the Wildcats have their shot. Kentucky is 40 minutes away from their stated goal of a trip to New Orleans.

The Wildcats withstood plenty of charges from an Indiana team that never quit. But Kentucky proved to have too many options offensively. Whenever it seemed like Indiana was going to go on a significant run, someone else would make a play.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist scored 24, Doron Lamb 21, Darius Miller 19, Marquis Teague 14 and Terrence Jones 12.

Kentucky had tremendous balance and loaded up the stat sheet en route to a 102-point effort, though defense was lacking at times as Indiana scored 90. The Wildcats and Hoosiers are the only teams to score at least 90 points during the tournament.

Kentucky always had the ability to be one of the most impressive teams offensively and finally showed it Friday night. This was the Wildcats' second-highest scoring game of the season (behind a 108-point effort against Marist) and the first time Kentucky has scored 90 points or more in the Sweet 16 since scoring 94 against UCLA in 1998.

The Kentucky-Baylor game is exactly the matchup that should have been in this regional. Even though Duke was the No. 2 seed in the South, Baylor was clearly the better team.

If you enjoyed this matchup, then get ready for an even better one Sunday.

Key player: Darius Miller had moments of being the ultimate glue guy with key buckets, whether he was facing the basket or slicing to the hoop. But the difference maker Friday night was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. MKG seemed to be in the right spot at the most opportune times and was creating opportunities for himself. Indiana could not contain him. MKG finished with 24 points and 10 boards. He didn’t miss a free throw, either, converting all 10. MKG’s work ethic is hard to match. He plays every possession as if it were his last.

Key stat: The Wildcats got to the free throw line a ton. Indiana did not. Kentucky was creating the contact and Kidd-Gilchrist and Lamb were the biggest beneficiaries. Neither missed a free throw. This was not a case of poor officiating. Rather, the Wildcats forced Indiana to foul. Kentucky was the aggressor throughout the second half. The Wildcats finished shooting 35-of-37 at the free throw line. MKG was a perfect 10-of-10 and Lamb was 8-of-8. Marquis Teague was 6-of-6 and Darius Miller was 5-of-5. Meanwhile, Indiana was 13-of-17. Kentucky’s free throw percentage (94.6 percent) was the highest in NCAA history with a minimum of 35 attempts (surpassing North Carolina's 91.7 percent in 1977), according to the NCAA. It was the most made free throws in a tournament game since Ohio State made 35 against Memphis in 2007.

Turning point: Anthony Davis had been battling foul trouble and a pestering Indiana front line. But the four-award national player of the year winner (he has two more to go) blocked a shot and then converted an offensive rebound at the other end to give the Wildcats a 79-66 lead. The Wildcats would still have to deal with a pesky Indiana, but Davis’ assertion as a dominant presence sent a strong message. The consecutive plays was a huge lift for Kentucky and a bit deflating for the Hoosiers. Indiana cut the lead under 10, but Miller helped stretch it back out to a manageable number. The Hoosiers lost Victor Oladipo to five fouls with more than four minutes left, which ended up being a critical blow.

What’s next: Top-ranked Kentucky takes on No. 3-seeded Baylor in a highly-anticipated Elite Eight matchup. The length and athleticism of both teams on display should provide quite a treat. If the officials let the teams play, this could be one of the most entertaining games we’ve seen at this stage in the tournament. It has a chance to rival that Arizona-Illinois Elite Eight game from 2005.