Kentucky's B-game still good enough

Originally Published: March 31, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- The Road Ends Here. That's what all the signs say in this Final Four town.

The road from the start of the basketball calendar in November to the finish come Monday evening at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The road from Lexington, Ky. The road from Lawrence, Kan.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Davis
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireAnthony Davis was dominant on both ends of the court, scoring 18 points and blocking five shots.

You don't need a hoops map to know Kentucky made it to the national championship game. The Wildcats blind you with their talent. Their driver licenses say they're underage, but the scoreboard always says they're much older.

UK, the No. 1 overall seed and surest thing since drunks on Bourbon Street, defeated in-state rival Louisville 69-61 in Saturday's night first semifinal. U of L did everything but tie the Wildcats' shoelaces together -- outrebounded them, forced more turnovers than them -- and UK still won by eight.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky's second-best freshman behind consensus national player of the year Anthony Davis, spent exactly six minutes on the floor in the first half. Foul trouble. He played only 23 total minutes and had a grand total of zero offensive rebounds.

And UK still won by eight.

The score was tied 49-49 with 9:12 remaining. Kentucky fans were on CPR alert. Louisville, Ohio State and Kansas fans were screaming for the biggest national semi upset since, what, Duke over UNLV in 1991? We had a game.

And UK still won by eight.

"To tell you the truth, I haven't always liked some of the Kentucky teams," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who coached UK to a national championship in 1996. "I'm not going to lie to you. But I really like this team a lot because of their attitude and the way they play."

You saw the attitude at game's end, when Davis, who finished with 18 points, 14 rebounds, 5 blocks, 2 assists and 1 steal, threw the ball in the air and yelled, (and this is the G-rated version from the postgame news conference) "This is my stage!"

Calipari, sitting next to Davis, did a double take.

"Did you say that?"

"Yeah," said Davis. "We go hard in practice. We go out there to have fun. The emotions. … I'm just glad to be here, national championship as a freshman."

"Don't ask him a follow-up," said Calipari. "He doesn't know why he was saying that."

Davis makes all Kentucky hoops dreams possible. Pitino invoked the great Bill Russell's name when discussing Davis, which might be a stretch. Or not. All that was missing from Davis' game Saturday night was a Russell goatee. For now we'll have to settle for the unibrow.

At times, Davis altered Louisville shots without ever leaving his feet. He was Kentucky's 6-foot-10 safety net.

His numbers were history-making. He becomes only the second player since 1986 to put up a 15-10-5 in a Final Four game. The last guy to do it was Danny Manning in 1988. And you remember what happened: Manning and The Miracles won a national title for Kansas.

Kentucky struggled at times against Louisville and still shot 57.1 percent from the field, the second-best percentage in a Final Four since 1990. The Wildcats weren't at their best, but they played their best when they had to.

"Are they beatable?" said Pitino. "No question about it, because Vanderbilt did it [in the SEC tournament]. But you're going to have to play great offense, great defense and you've got to bring your A-plus-game and they have to have a B-game. That's what has to happen. They're a great ballclub. You have to get one or two guys in foul trouble."

UK will face Kansas, which overcame a 13-point deficit to beat Ohio State 64-62 in the semifinals nightcap. The Jayhawks could have lost earlier in the tournament to Purdue, but didn't. They could have lost to North Carolina State, but didn't.

But Purdue and NC State aren't within seven time zones of Kentucky's talent. You have to respect KU's body of work -- especially the comeback against Ohio State -- but the Jayhawks are moving up in weight class.

So in review, all Kansas has to do is play wayyyyy above the Bell Curve, Kentucky has to stumble in its championship final test and as much as 40 percent of UK's starting lineup has to commit some crippling fouls. Could it happen? I suppose. I give it the same chance as Davis returning to Lexington for his sophomore season.

[+] EnlargeThomas Robinson
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThomas Robinson and Kansas will face a huge task on Monday night: trying to take down No. 1 Kentucky.

Still, it will be a cool, fitting pairing for the last game of the season, though. Think about it:

You'll have the two all-time winningest programs in college basketball (Kentucky No. 1, Kansas No. 2). You'll have the player of the year (Davis) and the runner-up (KU's Thomas Robinson). You'll have a rematch (UK 75, KU 65 in mid-November at Madison Square Garden). You'll have a rematch of Calipari and Kansas coach Bill Self (Self beat Calipari's Memphis team for the 2008 national title). And you'll have a team expected to win it all (UK) and a team hardly anyone expected to reach New Orleans (KU).

"The best team in the country, hands down, from day one," said Self of Kentucky. "They're terrific. They're great. They've got guys who can make plays that you can't coach. They got pros, all that stuff. But I think we've got good players, too."

They do, but probably not enough to pull off the upset. Kentucky isn't as invincible as everyone thinks, but it also isn't as vulnerable as it played at times Saturday night.

One of my lasting memories of UK's victory will be the sight of Pitino screaming for Cardinals senior Kyle Kuric to get back on defense. Except that the game had ended several seconds earlier.

This is what Kentucky does it to you. It makes you believe you have a chance when you don't. It makes you think the road is longer than it really is.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter