NEW ORLEANS -- The last time John Calipari was on this stage, he was facing Kansas and Bill Self. He may or may not have had the better team in 2008, but he probably should have won. Two minutes and a nine-point comeback and Mario's Miracle and four years and a job change later, Calipari is back on the verge of a national title again.
And so the question was asked: What did he learn from the experience? What great lesson will he bring to Monday's national title matchup with Kansas? Do you feel any pressure?
"Make free throws, that's what I learned," Calipari said.
In other words, there is no great mystery to competition at this level, or at least none that Calipari is willing to reveal. The consensus in the Superdome media sessions Sunday was widespread, easily formed and ultimately correct: If the Cats play well Monday, they'll win. Calipari will get his redemption. Big Blue fans will get their coveted eighth national title. It really is that simple.
One look at Kentucky's lineup tells the story: The Wildcats are great at every position. Even better, they've long since coalesced into something even better than the sum of their parts. They're a team with minimal ego, a batch of future pros with defined, accepted roles, a group that draws strength not from the fear of failure but the promise -- even the casual expectation -- of success.
Barring a pressure-packed collapse, or some other unforeseen outcome, this is their title to win. How does that feel?
"Of course, people outside of us try to put pressure on us," forward Darius Miller said. "But we don't listen to people outside of what we call 'the family' anyway. We're just worried about what we can control, and that's playing as good as we can."
That attitude surely helps. But as important as the intangible will be Monday night, we shouldn't allow it to overshadow the talent that has brought the Wildcats this far in the first place. After all, as Calipari has constantly said, Kentucky is getting ready to play a basketball game.
As such, let's go player by player and lock in on exactly what has made this team so good -- and what makes them the likely favorite to sing Calipari's redemption song four years after his last best chance at his first national title.
(Note: To read my Kansas lineup breakdown, click here. Efficiency stats courtesy of kenpom.com; scouting data courtesy of Synergy Sports Technologies.)
Marquis Teague, point guard: The last time these two teams played, Teague was still a high school senior. Or at least it looked that way. He had five turnovers against Kansas, a problem that plagued him throughout the start of the season, and if there was one obvious weakness in Kentucky's considerable armor -- one question to ask about this team -- it was whether Teague could capably lead the Wildcats at the most important position in Calipari's offensive attack.
Those concerns have long since been put to rest. Despite dominating the ball throughout the tournament, Teague has committed just 13 turnovers in his past five games. Against Louisville's turnover-oriented defense, led by scrappy and slappy guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, Teague turned the ball over just twice. When UL made its second-half run, it was Teague at the top of the key, breaking the press, slowing the game to a crawl, taking command of an offense with maturity and poise well beyond his years. He is not the player we saw early in the season, not even close.
Teague has transformed under Calipari this season. He has accepted his role as a ball handler and distributor, one who doesn't need to blitz the scoring sheet like he did in high school, one who drives and scores as a second or third option, not the first. Calipari slowed Kentucky's pace of play throughout the SEC season, and that made life easier for Teague, too. Now the point guard arrives at the national title game with both abilities in his back pocket. If opposing teams press, he's more than happy to get out and run at the rim. If they play back, begging him to shoot, he doesn't willingly give in to instinct. (Despite defenses sagging off Teague and playing under ball screens, he has attempted just six 3s in the NCAA tournament -- three of which came in UK's all-out second-round blitzkrieg against Iowa State.)
Instead, Teague is smart and patient, well aware there are too many good options on this team. He never forces. He rarely rushes. His increasingly savvy play is a symbol of what this Kentucky team has become in the nearly five months since the first Kentucky-Kansas matchup in Madison Square Garden. There are no holes to poke in this lineup now.
Doron Lamb, shooting guard: Likewise, when ultra-talented Calipari teams have fallen flat in the past, it has often been thanks to bad shooting. When John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins fell short of a Final Four in 2010, it was thanks to a 4-of-32 shooting night from 3. When Calipari's 2008 Memphis team blew its shot at a national title, its historically bad free throw shooting was the flaw that reared its ugly head.
In 2012, Lamb's lights-out shooting has made that possibility -- the best hope for overwhelmed UK opponents -- ruthlessly remote.
Lamb is shooting 47 percent from 3 this season, 47 percent from inside the arc and 83 percent from the free throw line. His offensive rating of 127.9 is the ninth highest in the entire country.
This is partly due to Lamb's ability, but it is also due to his acceptance of his role. On any other team in the country, Lamb would likely be the leading scorer, the guy running ceaselessly off screens, an even smoother version of a volume scorer. (Think Texas' J'Covan Brown.) On Kentucky, Lamb is always the third or fourth option. This has the benefit of making the game much easier than it otherwise would be. Defenses must be aware of him, sure, but not at the expense of doubling Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones in the post, or cutting off Kidd-Gilchrist's drives, or stopping Teague off ball screens. It's all dangerous, every last option, and Lamb is thus left to work around the perimeter, find open shots and knock them down.
Consider this: Despite shooting 47 percent from 3, nearly 42 percent of Lamb's catch-and-shoots come in what Synergy defines as "unguarded" situations. Lamb is scoring 1.5 points per trip in those possessions. The dude makes you pay.
Kentucky is so good that Lamb doesn't need all that many touches to thrive. All he needs is for you to leave him for a split second, to consider the rest of the Wildcats more dangerous, before he punishes you with another long-range dagger. In the past, defenses have been able to sink in on Calipari teams, to force his squads to beat them with shooting. In 2012, that is just as bad an idea as any other. Good luck.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, small forward: The "acceptance of roles" theme is the single unifying principle behind this Kentucky team's success, and no player better embodies that than MKG. At this point, Kidd-Gilchrist is nearly a lock to go in the top three of this summer's NBA draft. He may well be the No. 2 pick behind teammate Anthony Davis. (This assumes whichever NBA general manager has the second pick decides to take Kidd-Gilchrist over Andre Drummond, which to me seems like an absolute no-brainer. But NBA GMs are NBA GMs, so you never know.)
The point is, Kidd-Gilchrist is a star. But he cloaks that star power well. Instead, what you see -- except for when he does something like his insane spin-dunk in Saturday's second half -- is the most athletic, talented, defensively dominant perimeter glue guy in the country.
Kentucky doesn't run offense for Kidd-Gilchrist. The highest share of his offensive possessions this season (24.7 percent, to be exact) came on transition plays, where MKG makes a steal or earns a long rebound or catches the ball on the break and uses his immense athleticism to attack the rim before opposing defenses have a chance to react. The other lion's share of his possessions has come on spot-ups, which is not Kidd-Gilchrist's strength; he shoots just 26 percent from beyond the arc.
But he does everything else. He rebounds (at a similar level as Terrence Jones, who plays closer to the rim far more often). He defends. Kidd-Gilchrist's size and athleticism are a stay-up-at-night-and-sweat-style nightmare for anyone from opposing forwards to point guards; before he fell into foul trouble Saturday night, Calipari matched him on Louisville point guard Peyton Siva, and Siva immediately became a non-factor in the game.
The Kansas matchup is an interesting one. Kidd-Gilchrist isn't nearly big enough to defend Thomas Robinson in the post, but he won't have to worry about Travis Releford all that often, at least not as a one-on-one threat. This will allow him to float, to jump passes, to take risks, to crash the boards, and by the time the game is over Monday night, we may be citing his all-out performance -- his defense, his rebounding, his toughness, his will -- as the defining attribute of this Kentucky team.
Terrence Jones, power forward: In a lineup that sandwiches him between Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist, it's been easy to forget just how good Jones is, too. In fact, Jones is Kentucky's most-used player, with a team-leading usage rate (22.9) and shot percentage (also 22.9). His combination of length, outside-in skills, post scoring and offensive rebounding has made him a force since he arrived in Lexington last season.
Where Jones may be most underrated -- and this wasn't the case in 2011, but again, chalk it up to the Davis-MKG effect -- is on the defensive end. Jones was lauded as one of the nation's best defenders last season, but his block (5.8 percent) and steal (2.6) rates have remained constant despite playing alongside two players who excel at both.
The question is: Can Jones stop Robinson alone? Or will Kentucky need -- or preemptively decide -- to double-team?
It may depend on the situation. Kidd-Gilchrist is quick enough to double-team off Releford and recover in time, and Davis covers so much ground he can shade to help in the post but still recover in time to protect the rim. Both players may be involved in a bevy of short-corner traps and rushes against Robinson, all the more to make T-Rob's game as hectic and decision-oriented as possible.
But Calipari may likewise tell his perimeter players -- Teague and Lamb and even Darius Miller -- to stay home when Robinson has the ball. Kansas is more than happy to see its perimeter players open by the 3-point line. Elijah Johnson is proficient at knocking down shots, and Tyshawn Taylor only needs a fraction of space against a close-out defender to get into the lane and make things happen.
When the near-side off-ball defender is one of those guards, it's probably a good idea to stay home and let Jones do his best to stop Robinson mano-a-mano. At first glance, this looks like a mismatch in KU's favor. But let's not forget: Jones is an awfully good defender, too.
Anthony Davis, center: At this point, there's not much more to say. The blocks. The insane alley-oops. The offensive efficiency. The effortless skill. The radically long and yet radically coordinated frame. The brow. (Never sleep on the brow.)
Davis is the nation's best player, a transcendent, generational talent. He's made college basketball his personal plaything for the past five months, and he has but one game left to seal his indelible legend. The chances of that game being anything but a coronation -- of him, of his team, of his long-maligned coach -- are slim.
There is no player in the country who can match Davis' combination of size and athleticism. There are few players at any level of the sport who can do that. (You tell me: Which NBA player is 6-foot-11 with this kind of skill set? Seriously -- who?) That said … if there is any player in the country with at least one of those traits -- length -- it is Kansas forward Jeff Withey. Which is why Davis' game on Monday night may not quite be just as easy as advertised.
At the very least, Withey will make things difficult on the low block. On Saturday, when he wasn't swatting shots and throwing down mind-exploding alley-oops, Davis was flashing his improved low-post game, which included soft hook shots with both his right and left hands. It's safe to assume Withey will eliminate that option, or at least make it more difficult. As you've read above, Kentucky still has a host of weapons; frankly, it doesn't need Davis to score to win. But Withey could at least take one arrow out of UK's quiver. If Withey can challenge Davis at the rim on both ends, and maybe get Davis into foul trouble -- something Davis is remarkably good at avoiding -- then this game would dramatically change.
But that all seems unlikely. At the end of the day, Davis is the nation's second most efficient offensive player (offensive rating: 135.8) and arguably its best defender. He is a guard in a body that may well have origins in a different solar system. He is team-driven and humble, a guy who came into his body and this lottery-level talent late in his prep career; he didn't grow up with handlers telling him how much money he would make one day, and he plays like it. And he seems to be slowly realizing just what he's capable of. When he stood on the court after Saturday night's win, screaming "This is my [bleep!]" (Davis said he used the word "stage," but it was pretty clear what he actually said), he almost looked bemused by it all. Wow. I guess I really am this good, huh?
He is. And that's why he'll be the No. 1 overall pick, a likely longtime NBA All-Star, and why Kentucky is just 40 minutes away from the coronation its remarkable season so justly deserves. What a player.
Reserves: Darius Miller, Kyle Wiltjer: It almost feels unfair to call Darius Miller a reserve, because he plays nearly as many of his team's available minutes (65.1 percent) as Jones, a starter (69.2 percent). But no matter. Having Miller available off the bench allows Calipari to sub in at the 2, 3 and 4 spots without missing a beat. When Kidd-Gilchrist hit foul trouble Saturday against Louisville, there was never a sense of panic. Why would there be? Just sub Miller in, let him unleash his excellent offensive attack, and eschew the stress.
Everything will be fine. In fact, that's the general consensus from Miller's teammates about the senior's play -- he calms them down, refocuses them when things get hairy -- and that's the vibe he gives off when he's on the court. The value of that for this young team in its pursuit of a national title can't possibly be overstated.
And let's not forget Kyle Wiltjer. Wiltjer is a spot-sub who gets limited minutes in a crowded frontcourt, but his unique talents -- he's a 6-9 forward who shoots 43 percent from 3 -- make him a tricky matchup when he is on the floor. Wiltjer will no doubt be back in a Kentucky lineup next season, and it will be fascinating to see what he does with his game by his sophomore year. But for now, as the seventh member of this rotation, his role is just about perfect.
Game plan: Beyond the defensive discussion involved in stopping Robinson -- whether and when to double, and with which players -- the Wildcats' game plan remains the same: Just do what we do. That has been Calipari's message all tournament, whether the opponent was talented and high-powered (Iowa State, Baylor) or scrappy and unyielding (Louisville). The Wildcats are what they are because they're better than everyone else, and there's no point in changing their style, system or attack for anyone or anything with just 40 minutes between them and a national title.
And oh, by the way: Have fun, too.
"I know if my team is enjoying themselves, they're going to play better," Calipari said. "To do that, you can't be getting bullied. You can't play half speed. You have to play with emotion and passion. You've got to be with your teammates; you've got to be together. You have a ball. It doesn't mean you win every game. We haven't won every game. It means you have a chance to win every game. It means you're at your best.
"For this game, all I keep telling them is, 'Let's be at our best. We'll deal with the results.'"