It has been a Final Four defined by rematches, and tonight’s NCAA Championship game between the No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats (37-2) and the No. 2 Kansas Jayhawks (32-6) is no exception in more ways than one.
The two teams faced each other in the second game of the season on Nov. 15 at Madison Square Garden. The Wildcats emerged victorious 75-65 behind a balanced attack with five players scoring in double figures, including 17 points from sophomore guard Doron Lamb (13.2 PPG, 2.9 RPG) and 14 points and seven blocks from freshman phenom and player of the candidate Anthony Davis (14.3 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 4.6 BPG). Kansas got 22 points from senior guard Tyshawn Taylor (16.5 PPG, 4.8 APG), despite shooting 3-13 from the field, but did not have enough production from his supporting cast to make a game out of it.
This is also a rematch of the 2008 NCAA Championship Game, not between UK and KU, but between the team’s respective coaches, John Calipari and Bill Self. That game was one for the ages, defined by Memphis’ struggles from the free throw line late in the game and Kansas’ Mario Chalmers drilling a three-pointer with 2.1 seconds left in the game to send it into overtime, where the Jayhawks eventually prevailed 75-68.
Past games can be used as a barometer to what to expect, but so much has changed from the beginning of the season when the two teams first played. Kansas had an unsure identity in the first meeting, with a team that had lost six contributors from last year’s team, and was still coming into its own. Kansas got significantly better as the season went on and particularly in the tournament, where they have lived on the edge with close victories sealed by staunch second half defense and just enough offense to get the job done, including a 64-62 Final Four victory over Ohio State which saw the Jayhawks overcome a deficit as large as 13.
Kentucky, on the other hand, was expected to be a dominant team and have delivered in grand fashion. They steamrolled through SEC competition during the regular season and won each tournament game except their 69-61 Final Four win over Louisville by double digits.
If there is one thing that both clubs have in common, it is their defensive prowess. Kentucky ranks 25th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 60.6 PPG. Kansas is 42nd, but still only allows 61.6 PPG. Points in the paint will be at a premium in this game, as both teams are excellent shot blocking teams. Kentucky is the best shot blocking college team of all time, shattering the single season mark of 315 blocks set by UConn in 2004 with 333 (and counting) and leads the country with 8.5 BPG. Anthony Davis and sophomore forward Terrence Jones (12.4 PPG, 7.2 RPG) account for 246 of UK’s blocks, including a whopping 180 by Davis alone. Kansas ranks ninth at 5.7 PPG and is led by seven-foot junior Jeff Withey (9.3 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 3.6 BPG).
On the offensive side of the ball, Kansas has two of the nation’s best scorers in Tyshawn Taylor and junior forward and player of the year candidate Thomas Robinson (17.7 PPG, 11.7 RPG). Junior guard Elijah Johnson (10.1 PPG, 3.6 APG) is not quite as prolific as the two Jayhawk stars, but is a solid role player and has been playing well throughout the tournament.
Kentucky, on the other hand, is stacked. They have five players who average double figure scoring and has a roster chalk full of future NBA lottery picks, namely Anthony Davis and freshman forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (11.9 PPG, 7.5 RPG). Kidd-Gilchrist is a man of many talents and is an X-factor and a matchup nightmare for Kentucky and is particularly good in transition.
Points will be at a premium as two of college basketball’s blue blood programs clash for the National Championship. Calipari is looking for his first NCAA Title and Kentucky for its first since 1998, while Self is looking to derail the Kentucky train that has been blowing through competition, and pick up his second ring of his nine year career at Kansas. Both teams have the defense to carry them to a title, but Kentucky has a much more versatile and potent offensive attack. They can hurt you inside with Davis, Jones, and Kidd-Gilchrist, or outside with shooters Lamb, Darius Miller, and Marquis Teague.
Thomas Robinson has been an absolute beast all season, and is a double-double machine. Jones and Davis will have to disrupt Robinson down low and not let the hyper-athletic forward have his way inside. Tyshawn Taylor will also need to step up his production on the offensive end for Kansas to compete. Taylor has not made a three point basket in the entire tournament. Kansas will also need a solid third scoring option, whether it be Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford, or Jeff Withey, or anyone else on the roster. Kentucky is too deep and talented to allow the Robinson-Taylor show to single handedly win the game for the Jayhawks.
When the two most winningest programs in history square off against each other, it is sure to turn some heads. When they meet on the biggest stage college has to offer, the national championship game in New Orleans, the entire country will turn in to what is expected to be must-see TV. Kentucky has been the most dominant team throughout the season, and will try and put the ultimate icing on the cake with a national title. The pesky Jayhawks from Lawrence will try and have to say something to say about that and use their dynamic offensive duo to find their way through the Kentucky defense. No matter what happens, basketball fans everywhere will be in for a treat. The Big Dance in the Big Easy concludes tonight in what is sure to be epic proportions.
Topics: Anthony Davis, Bill Self, Darius Miller, Doron Lamb, Final Four, Jeff Withey, John Calipari, Kansas Jayhawks, Kentucky Wildcats, KU, Louisville, Madison Square Garden, Mario Chalmers, Marquis Teague, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, NCAA Championship, Ohio State, Terrence Jones, Thomas Robinson Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford, Tyshawn Taylor, UK