Monday, April 2, 2012
Kentucky-Kansas: Great for the game
By Dana O'Neil ESPN.com
NEW ORLEANS -- And so here we are.
After a disjointed season rocked by scandal and suspensions and an NCAA tournament with limited drama and no buzzer-beaters, we end up on the basketball court-turned-stage with Kentucky and Kansas.
That's Kentucky, with 2,089 wins, good for No. 1 all time.
And Kansas, with 2,070 wins, ranking second all time.
It's as if James Naismith and Adolph Rupp got together on St. Peter's court and said, "Enough. Let's give the folks what they want."
From James Naismith to Phog Allen, Kansas knows tradition.
This is a national championship built for the basketball die-hard and for the hoops neophyte, a perfect marriage of old-school tradition and current-day name branding.
Those reared in the cradle of college basketball will love this game for its history, for a nostalgic past that somehow has gotten mucked up amid NBA age limits that rob the sport of dynasty building.
And the newbies, the ones who don't know Danny Manning from Peyton, will appreciate seeing the best of the best, even if their college tenure is short-lived.
But everyone knows that there are certain places where college basketball matters most.
Two of those places are Lawrence and Lexington.
"Kentucky and Kansas, Rupp and Allen, Naismith and Rupp," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "It should be an exciting game."
And it's a game that is good for the game.
Sports are best when the best are good.
Does anyone really care if the Marlins win the World Series?
Not really. We are a society that consumes excellence and idolizes greatness.
We embrace upstarts but, ultimately, we love the blue bloods, and these two blue-wearing schools are as royally blooded as they get.
"I dreamed about [a matchup with Kentucky] as soon as I saw the brackets," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "I said, 'How cool would it be to play Kentucky in the finals?'
"I do think it's pretty neat that you have the two winningest programs of all time hooking up. The bluest of the blue bloods getting a chance to play."
Kansas and Kentucky are sepia-toned history pages come to life, places where you can blow the musty odor off the reference books and practically feel the past seeping through the pages.
There's Wilt Chamberlain and Dan Issel, The Unforgettables and Danny Manning and the Miracles.
From leading in all-time wins to racking up appearances in the Final Four (Kentucky 15, Kansas 14) and NCAA tournament titles (seven for the Wildcats, three for the Jayhawks), the two programs own the game's history.
Yet neither program lives in the past, holding on to its laurels in the hope people will remember them. The two are as relevant today as they were back in the day. Kansas won a national title in 2008, and Kentucky played in the Final Four in 2011.
And although their ardent fan bases might treat their players like rock stars and losses like familial tragedies, their reach extends beyond their alumni bases.
This is what the game needs and craves and, frankly, deserves.
Unfortunately, the undercard storyline might dominate the conversation in the immediate afterglow -- whether this national title game will serve as a referendum on how to win in the current college basketball landscape.
For better or for worse, Monday's title game might be viewed as a referendum on one-and-done in college basketball.
There are recyclables that will spend more time in Lexington than most of the current Wildcats roster. Within days of the national championship, most will announce their intention to move on to the next stage of their life, continuing a dizzying turnover that has hit UK since Calipari took over the program.
Calipari won't apologize for capitalizing on the system, nor should he.
It is not as though he is the only one who tried to recruit Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague. He merely got them.
All of them.
But if Kentucky wins, plenty of people will decry the end of college basketball as we know it.
Meantime, Kansas is the throwback winner, a team that doesn't count a freshman or sophomore among its starting five.
The Jayhawks came up the old-fashioned way, gaining minutes as they gained experience, getting better as they got accustomed to one another.
That it is by default rather than design will get lost in the shuffle. The truth is, Bill Self lost two freshmen to academic ineligibility early and has had his share of one-and-dones, too.
But his team, should it win, will be lauded as proof that building teams as opposed to assembling rosters is the way to go.
And should all of that overshadow this national championship, it will be a shame. To quote every coach's favorite cliché, the game is what it is.
For better or worse, it's not changing.
So instead of bemoaning what might come, let's embrace what we have here: an epic title game, a rhapsody in blue if you will.
As the song says, the ball goes up.
And delightfully, it is Naismith and Rupp hosting the jump.