Sunday, April 1, 2012

Kentucky Has Slight Edge, but Don’t Rule Out Kansas

If this has been a watchful season with Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Kansas’ Thomas Robinson — what are the odds we witness one of the most amazing instant classics in NCAA history? This tournament has infatuated our senses — amazed by Davis’ beast-like behavior and the Wildcats dream season … the fab freshman sealed the deal when he slammed home an alley-oop from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to defeat in-state rival Louisville 69-61 in Saturday night’s first semifinals. What fun to see an NCAA national championship game involving Kentucky, arguably the best team in the nation loaded with plenty of talented one-and-done, NBA ready superstars, and Kansas, a storied basketball program that includes big-name stars in All-Americans Robinson and Jeff Withey.

Bluegrass State vs. Sunflower State!

The road ends here, a chance for one of these schools to celebrate in bliss, climb the ladder and cut down the nets and raise the trophy. The winner is awarded — rightfully so — with a gold-plated trophy made of wood as it embodies everything college athletics signifies, as much as it pays homage to the best basketball team in college hoops. That honor might go to Kentucky, considered as one the greatest modern-era teams we’ve seen ever. Or Kansas just might travel to Lawrence as winners, once it’s all said and done.

Kentucky, meet Kansas.

Kansas, meet Kentucky.

In the ultimate debate of Kentucky likely being one of the best college basketball teams ever seen, it’s not an overstatement to turn one’s attention to the Wildcats and flatter UK for such a dominant run throughout an unpredictable, suspenseful three-week competition. This time around, surely, the Final Four featured not one underdog, an unusual scene for a tournament where a sleeper normally wears the glass slipper to attract attention as a Cinderella. For those of you who filled out elusive brackets, which were busted no later than the first round, they were smart to fill in their brackets by choosing chalk. There is no one more unstoppable, uncontainable, unbeatable and scarier than Kentucky and, if Kansas is still unsatisfied over heartbreaking losses and is hankering for a national championship, they’ll have to beat considerably the most talented team in college basketball.

It was too often during a month of chancy basketball that, time and time again, Kansas relied on comebacks, rallying from behind in another late-game run to survive and beat the Ohio State Buckeyes 64-62, and advance to the national championship for a test in a tough meeting against Kentucky Monday night. They won’t beat the Wildcats playing stagnant and sluggish early on. They won’t because the ‘Cats cause trouble for opponents, with plenty of athleticism, ferocity and a winning mentality, coming from an inexperienced and raw group of impending NBA stars. It’s becoming a usual standard, the Calipari Way to recruit the best players, a method he utilizes beautifully to his liking with almost full confidence in one-and-done, NBA-caliber players.

This is nothing new for Kentucky head coach John Calipari, whose philosophy is a simple pattern to figure out. The Wildcats, again next season, will reload and rebuild a talented Kentucky roster because Calipari has mastered the art of recruiting. This is not to say Kansas loses to the Wildcats, but the Jayhawks must score early and maintain leads or either keep a close deficit and cannot rely on an unbelievable comeback. By realizing Calipari has mustered the most talented team ever, the Wildcats are indeed the slight favorites, while Kansas make people have panic attacks with its customary come-from-behind wins. The real concern is whether KU can match UK’s intensity and its level of focus, against a dangerous group of superstars who have played consistently and productively, a well-balanced and staunch Kentucky team.

If not for Kansas’ late-game swagger, luck charms and resilience, the Jayhawks wouldn’t have scored six unanswered points in the final minutes of the game versus Purdue in the second round to take a 63-60 win, and wouldn’t have surged on a 12-0 run that resulted in an 80-67 win. If the Jayhawks somehow sustains satisfaction — if they beat the Wildcats – then it would truly be special for Kansas and Bill Self, who will take a 2-0 lead over Calipari in the overexposed duel to remain perfect against Kentucky’s coach.

There’s another obstacle standing in Kansas’ way, and focus now shifts to Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist, who is the second-best freshman even after having an awful game by spending much of the first-half on the bench in early foul trouble. And overall, it wasn’t Kentucky’s finest game. For much of the contest, the ‘Cats were outplayed, outhustled and outrebounded but shot the ball perfectly, shooting 57.1 percent from the field. With the game tied 49-49 late in the second half, Kentucky was a bit uncomfortable and was hindered from driving the lane as Louisville tightened on defense and disrupted the Wildcats’ dribble penetration, forcing them to launch thoughtless, midrange jumpers.

It took Calipari’s guys out of their comfort zone briefly, only to regain poise and confidence with their flair for penetrating to the basket, creating plays and finding the open man. Sitting on the bench for a while, Kidd-Gilchrist played only 23 minutes total and had not one offensive rebound and went scoreless for much of the first half, finishing with nine points. It’s been an unbelievable season for Kidd-Gilchrist, a breakthrough year for the true freshman, and while he had a bad game, he still had a couple of flashy, fast break dunks in the final minutes.

Even beyond that, Davis is a key component for Kentucky and, all season, he has been the defensive force with a serious approach. It isn’t as though his time is almost over with the Wildcats, but more than likely he won’t return to Kentucky next season as Davis is definitely a surefire No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. For now, anyway, he’s the most important player on the floor for the Wildcats, and on Saturday alone, he scored 18 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and had five blocks — becoming just the second player since 1986 to post 15-10-5 in a Final Four game.

So now, the two winningest programs in college basketball are set to meet on center stage. No. 2 Kansas vs. No. 1 Kentucky. It’s clear Self will have another shot at Calipari, who will be trying to get even with Kansas’ coach in a rematch from the 2008 national championship game when Calipari, after Memphis had a nine-point lead, was defeated by Self’s Jayhawks. That was the game where Mario Chalmers buried an indelible three-pointer with 2.1 seconds left to send the game to overtime and an eventual national championship. The Jayhawks are entering Monday night’s game as heavy underdogs after Kentucky overwhelmed Kansas in the second half back in November.

“This is my stage!”

Yes, this is Davis’ stage.

But for now, and until Kansas is beaten, we can’t rule the Jayhawks out. Who cares if theory has it that Kentucky can’t be stopped or beaten? There’s still one game to be played, and with lethargy, arrogance and a few costly mistakes, the Wildcats could be just as vulnerable as are the Jayhawks. At the start, Kansas was trailing by 13 early in the first half, but as they’ve done so well throughout the tournament, they stormed back in the second half by being awarded trips to the charity strike where they made free throws down the stretch. The matchup everyone talked about heavily was no match for Ohio State star Jared Sullinger in which Robinson outdueled him on a collision course.

And then, Withey, the seven-foot All-American center who only had four points was one of the game’s dominant forces and the difference maker. He shut down and stifled shooters, swatting three Sullinger shots less than three minutes into the game. And when it was over, Sullinger finished 5-for-19 and seemed exhausted as Withey stopped and rejected Sullinger with his low post defense on almost every shot he attempted. It was brought to our attention that Withey had blocked seven shots — denying everything with his size and strength, one of the tallest centers out there.

It will be a battle for Kansas, just as it will be tough for Kentucky. It’s fairly known these two teams are evenly matched in a sense, which gives us a better understanding why these two teams have advanced to the biggest stage in college basketball and will play for a title. Nothing is certain. That’s for sure. The Wildcats, as they were anticipated, beat their rivals Louisville. Following the loss, Rick Pitino spoke nicely of the Wildcats and handled it with grace and class.

But now, it’s vital the ‘Cats realize they aren’t playing a team on a lesser scale but against one of the top programs. It’s hard to argue that Kentucky can’t beat the Jayhawks, when Kansas barely hung on against low-seeded teams and almost experienced a major upset against N.C. State in the Sweet 16.

It’s fitting to see these two teams, two storied school, two great coaches with talented players.

Only the strong survives.