By Brian Otskey, Rush The Court
College basketball fans, this is it. A champion will be crowned tonight in front of 70,000+ people packed into the Superdome. Savor it because this beautiful sport of ours won’t be seen again for seven long and painful months. Between tonight and early November, many things will happen. Baseball and football will begin new seasons. The NBA will end one season and begin another. A long, hot summer will come and go. A presidential election will be held. All of this before we see another college basketball game that matters, after tonight’s phenomenal finale of course.
#1 Kentucky vs. #2 Kansas – National Championship (at New Orleans, LA) – 9:23 PM ET on CBS
It’s not often when the consensus top two players meet in the final game of the season, but that’s exactly what we have as Anthony Davis and Kentucky face Thomas Robinson and Kansas. You could make an argument that Bill Self and John Calipari are the best coaches in the sport as well, matched up in a battle between the two winningest programs in NCAA history. This has the makings of a special night, one that might trump them all in terms of the pregame storylines. Kentucky enters the game as a solid favorite (six points in Las Vegas) and won the first meeting by 10 points on November 15 at Madison Square Garden. Who had that as the national championship preview after watching it? Maybe you had the Kentucky half, but you certainly did not have the Kansas half of the equation. Plenty has changed since then, but there are a few things we can glean from that game. Kansas jumped out to an early lead before Kentucky rallied to tie it at the half and took control after the break. The Wildcats shot 51% but committed 19 turnovers (25.6% of possessions, their fifth highest total of the season). There were 45 fouls called in the game and Kansas point guard Tyshawn Taylor went to the line 17 times as a result. Kentucky’s defense was outstanding, limiting Kansas to 34% shooting and 4-15 from deep. The Wildcats blocked 13 shots (seven courtesy of Davis) and won the game in comfortable fashion.
Tonight’s contest is a matchup between two elite defensive teams, tied for the national lead in defensive two-point percentage (39.8%). The battles at the power forward and center positions are absolutely fantastic. Davis and Terrence Jones go up against Jeff Withey and Robinson, four outstanding defensive players and three who can change the game offensively as well. Robinson is the best defensive rebounder in the nation while Davis and Withey are the top two shot blockers. Jones can electrify the crowd with his athleticism and can also stretch his game to the three-point line. Kentucky is the more talented team, but Kansas has shown an incredible level of grit and toughness throughout the season, never more so than in the NCAA Tournament. Overcoming deficits against Purdue and Ohio State, plus putting away NC State and North Carolina late in the game has shown us this Kansas team is no fluke. The Jayhawks have absolutely nothing to lose in this game and are the more experienced team by a wide margin. On the other hand, Kentucky has one more game to go in order to live up to the preseason expectation of winning the program’s eighth national championship.
While the individual matchups are terrific, the outcome could hinge on Kentucky’s balance against the ability of Kansas’ supporting cast to make a difference offensively. If Calipari sticks Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on Taylor, that could cause major issues for the Jayhawks. Kidd-Gilchrist is a warrior and his length and athleticism may result in the turnover-prone Taylor coughing it up, leading to plenty of transition buckets for Kentucky. The Wildcats are the best transition team in the country and it’s paramount that Kansas not turn the ball over tonight. The Kidd-Gilchrist/Taylor matchup doesn’t hurt Kentucky, either, because Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb should not have major problems guarding Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford. This is the way Calipari should go, at least for a few stretches here and there. Taylor has to get his teammates involved because Kansas won’t win a two-man battle against the talent and balance of Kentucky. Kidd-Gilchrist was saddled with foul trouble against Louisville, but he will be the X-factor for the Wildcats if he can stay on the floor this time.
You will find the real meat and potatoes of this game on the low block. Withey had an outstanding second half guarding Jared Sullinger in the semifinals but Davis is a different animal. Withey can certainly hold his ground and block shots but he can’t let Davis’ athleticism take over the game, something that could lead to early foul trouble. That has to be a major concern if you are a Kansas fan. If one of the big men on either side is hit with fouls, the advantage could swing strongly towards the other team. Will Kansas double the post as it has done so often in the past? Self might have to if Davis is able to maneuver his way around Withey, although that’s not a certainty. Doubling the post would also leave Jones wide open on the weak side, in prime position to grab an offensive rebound and send it in for two points. Speaking of rebounding, that will be a huge part of this game. Louisville absolutely killed Kentucky on the offensive glass (16-5) on Saturday night and it is the key for Kansas to get easy buckets against a stifling defense. It’s really difficult to score against Kentucky in the half court so the Jayhawks need to take advantage of every second opportunity around the rim. Robinson missed some chippies against Ohio State and that can’t happen again if the Jayhawks are going to pull the upset. Easy buckets also means doing work in transition. Kansas forced 19 Kentucky turnovers in the first meeting between these teams and will likely need to do something similar tonight. What’s tougher is keeping Kentucky out of transition. If Kentucky gets to the rim and finishes in the paint, it will be lights out for Kansas. On the perimeter, Taylor has to start making shots. He is an astounding 0-20 from beyond the arc in the NCAA Tournament but remains a 37.7% shooter from deep for the season. He is beyond due and he can make Kentucky sweat if he starts to knock down some of those shots. On the other side, keep an eye on Kentucky senior Darius Miller. He comes off the bench, but just has that knack for making a big shot. He’s also a terrific defender and will really bother the shorter Kansas perimeter players with his 6’8” frame.
Kansas will have to play its A/A+ game in order to win its fourth national championship, something it is due for having not played anywhere near that level to date in the tournament. Kentucky is beatable but the Jayhawks can’t afford to make mental errors or miss easy shots around the rim like Louisville did on Saturday. The Wildcats are the more balanced team by far, but how will their lack of experience come into play, if at all? If this game is close in the final minutes, Kansas may have the edge. The Jayhawks have thrived in those situations all year and Kentucky’s players, while certainly not playing like freshmen to date, will have a ton of game and outside pressure on them. It’s one thing to say they are talented and have gained experience over the season but one never knows how a team as young as this one will react when the chips are down and everything is on the line as it will be this evening. The question is, will the game be close enough for that to potentially make a difference? Kentucky has been the best team all year long and likely has enough to win its first national championship since 1998 while giving Calipari his first ever title against the team he began his coaching career with as a volunteer assistant in 1982.
The RTC Certified Pick: Kentucky 63, Kansas 56.
Brian Otskey is the Big East correspondent for RTC and a regular contributor. You can find him on Twitter @botskey.