NEW ORLEANS -- After nearly five months of the 2011-12 season, it has all come down to one game. Before Monday night's tipoff between Kansas and Kentucky, five of our writers in the Big Easy take one last shot at a few questions and predictions.
What are you most looking forward to in the title game?
Eamonn Brennan: The unexpected hero. Perhaps that's foolish in a marquee matchup like this. But the national title game is a weird artifact -- 40 minutes, do-or-die, everything on the line -- and it has a way of producing unlikely, unforeseen star turns. If that happens, it may well benefit Kansas: The Jayhawks fully admit they are at a distinct talent disadvantage, and they will need someone (Jeff Withey, Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford, or even Conner Teahan or Kevin Young) to step up and play the game of his life to level the balance.
Andy Katz: Well, it's probably the last chance to see Anthony Davis on the college scene. And if that's the case, I can't wait. We should all step back and acknowledge his overall excellence this season. He has dominated his position like few others in recent years. Davis will have some difficulty dealing with Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey, but he hasn't shirked a challenge yet. I fully expect him to be the first national player of the year winner to win the title since Shane Battier did it with Duke in 2001.
Jason King: I love watching Tyshawn Taylor play. Most times he's brilliant, and there are other moments when he's terrible. But his ups and downs usually play a huge part in the outcome of the game. Taylor has shown a tremendous amount of mental toughness in the NCAA tournament and is usually at his best late in games when the score is tight. I think he'll win the point guard matchup with Marquis Teague.
Myron Medcalf: I want to see how Thomas Robinson ends his college career. Few people have endured the level of tragedy he experienced last season. (He lost his mother, grandmother and grandfather in a one-month span.) From the ultimate low to a remarkable high a year later. He's had ups and downs throughout the tournament. But none of that matters Monday. He has a chance to bring a title back to Lawrence. And judging by the way he talked Sunday, I think he's ready for a memorable performance. Kansas shouldn't be here on paper. The Jayhawks weren't the No. 2 team in America at any point this season. But they just find ways to win, and Robinson is a huge part of that. He's probably going to the NBA after this, so I look forward to seeing how he ends things at Kansas. He's been through so much.
Dana O'Neil: I'm looking forward to more Anthony Davis. After that national semifinal game, who isn't? Davis is a once-in-a-generation player, and it is a pleasure to be able to watch him for one more game. But it's not just his prodigious talent that makes Davis so special. It is also his hustle. The freshman defies the notion of basketball diva, playing with a vengeance on every possession. His dive over the media table to run down an errant ball said it all. This will be Davis' last collegiate game. I intend to enjoy watching the show.
At the end of the day, who or what will be the X factor?
Brennan: Kansas' defense. This is the Jayhawks' best trait, and shutting down Kentucky's offense is their best hope of keeping this thing manageable and winnable for 40 minutes. Not only would great D stifle a seemingly unstifleable (new word, but the Wildcats require new words) offense, but it would make KU's life that much easier on the offensive end, creating fast-break and secondary-break opportunities before Anthony Davis & Co. can recover into half-court lockdown mode. And the key really is 40 minutes. Kansas has made a habit of yielding large margins in the first half only to shut things down in the second half. It has worked thus far, but it won't fly against the Wildcats.
Katz: I'm going to go with Doron Lamb. Lamb didn't make a 3-pointer against Louisville in the semis, but perimeter shooting could be a difference-maker Monday night. It's hard to call Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Anthony Davis or Terrence Jones X factors. All three of them are consistent presences. But if Lamb makes a few big shots, this game might turn quickly.
King: Kentucky appears to have a decided advantage at both the shooting guard and small forward positions with Doron Lamb and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, with Darius Miller coming off the bench. Kansas will counter with Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and reserve Conner Teahan. Johnson has been clutch throughout the NCAA tournament, and Releford -- who hit some huge free throws against Ohio State -- has blossomed into a solid defender. But Kentucky's guys are just too talented.
Medcalf: Anthony Davis' defense. It's become a cliché to say "Anthony Davis will have a great game," but I think the masses will finally appreciate how good this freshman really is Monday night. He's one of the greatest defenders in college basketball history, according to the numbers. We don't get to see these young stars for very long because of the one-and-done rule, but we should enjoy Davis' defensive prowess while we can. I actually think Kansas will keep this game close. I like Jeff Withey's ability to alter and block shots at the rim. I think Thomas Robinson will have a huge game. I think Tyshawn Taylor will show up, too. But Davis is going to make some spectacular defensive plays that seal the victory and the title for Kentucky.
O'Neil: Darius Miller. The senior delivered the crushing blow to Louisville on Saturday, nailing a 3-pointer that sealed the win. I suspect he'll be every bit as critical in the title game. Miller has flown under the radar all season, allowing his young teammates to steal the show. But his steadiness has been an understated value to Kentucky. That will never be more critical than on Monday night, when nothing less than everything is on the line.
Kansas-Kentucky: Who wins and why?
Brennan: Kansas matches up reasonably well with a team that, frankly, no one can match up well with. The Jayhawks have a shot-blocking force of their own in 7-foot center Jeff Withey, which seems like a baseline requirement for lessening the impact of Davis on both ends of the floor. They also have the other player of the year candidate, Thomas Robinson, playing some of his most complete basketball down the stretch, and a veteran backcourt in Taylor, Johnson and Releford. But I still don't think it will be enough. Davis is too good, and the team around him has no flaws, no obvious holes, just great players playing seamless basketball on a coronation march toward the national title. Strike up the "My Old Kentucky Home," pull the vintage bourbon down off the shelf and prepare the couches of Lexington for their final resting place: The Kentucky Wildcats are your 2012 national champions.
Katz: I've learned my lesson not to give up on Kansas. The Jayhawks have looked done multiple times only to figure out a way to come back with late-game execution and take advantage of miscues. But I can't go against my original pick of Kentucky. And as John Calipari said Friday morning, he has the best player in the game. His name is Anthony Davis. Thomas Robinson had a sensational season, but he doesn't change the game the way Davis does on a game-by-game basis. Davis is the difference, and Kentucky will win.
King: Kentucky isn't invincible, but even when they're not at their best, the Wildcats are better than anyone they play. Kansas will need to play its best game of the season to win -- then hope that UK misses shots. I like that KU's top seven players are all juniors and seniors. That could be a factor Monday. Still, the team that some have pegged as one of the best teams in modern history will be too much for the overachieving Jayhawks in a game that will be closer than most people expect.
Medcalf: Ohio State would be a better matchup. I just think Kansas is too similar to Kentucky. And anything the Jayhawks can do, the Wildcats can do better. Jeff Withey is a talented defender, but he's not Anthony Davis. Thomas Robinson could have a monster game, but Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can match his production. The Wildcats have so many weapons. Kansas doesn't really use its bench, but Kentucky can bring a veteran such as Darius Miller off the bench and get double figures from him. I think the Wildcats will be too fast and too tough defensively to lose this one. I think we're going to see our first freshman-anchored squad collect a title in the one-and-done era Monday night.
O'Neil: Oh, let's not be silly. Kentucky will win. Kansas has all sorts of intangibles: toughness and smarts, wiliness and an uncanny knack for making a comeback. But the Wildcats have talent -- lots and lots of talent. Talent wins.