It seems only fitting that the two winningest programs in NCAA Division I men's basketball history square off for this year's national championship, as the second-seeded Kansas Jayhawks battle the top-seeded Kentucky Wildcats tonight at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.
The game not only features two tradition-rich schools, but also a pair of national award winners in Kansas head man Bill Self (Naismith Coach of the Year) and Kentucky freshman sensation Anthony Davis (John R. Wooden Player of the Year). It's also the second time this season the two will have met, with Kentucky earning a 75-65 win during the Champions Classic in New York City back on November 15, 2011. Overall, the Wildcats own a 20-6 series advantage over Kansas, and the teams are 1-1 against each other all-time in the NCAA Tournament (1999, 2007).
Kansas came into the season regarded as one of the top teams in the country, and the team did little to make anyone think otherwise as it won the Big 12 Conference regular-season title. Despite not winning the conference tournament, Kansas earned its 41st bid to the NCAA Tournament and has been to a national-best 23 straight Dances. The Jayhawks boast a 93-39 all-time record in the tourney and are playing in their eighth national championship game. KU has three NCAA national crowns to its credit (1952, 1988, 2008), and reached tonight's clash by knocking off Detroit (65-50), Purdue (63-60), NC State (60-57), North Carolina (80-67) and most recently, Ohio State (64-62).
Self is closing the curtain on his ninth season at KU, and he has an outstanding record of 269-52 with the Jayhawks -- 476-157 overall in his 19 years as a head coach. He led the team to the 2008 National Championship, which it won in overtime against a Memphis team that was coached, ironically enough, by current Kentucky head man John Calipari.
Self knows his team faces another stiff test on Monday night.
"You know, Kentucky, I haven't studied 'em yet. But I've watched 'em enough all year long," Self said after Saturday's win over Ohio State. "They're terrific. They're great. They got guys that can make plays you can't coach. They got pros, all that stuff. But I think we got good players, too."
He went on to praise his guys even more.
"Our players keep getting better," Self added. "These guys, at least the second half, were very confident. We have to come out and play like a confident team. We can't be a team that is in any way, shape or form defensive or not in attack mode. We have to go take it, because I guarantee Kentucky will play like they're going to take it."
Kentucky is arguably the top team in the land, and its 37-2 record on the year certainly solidifies that notion. The Wildcats won their 45th SEC title this year by going a perfect 16-0 in league play, and although they fell to Vanderbilt in the conference tournament title tilt, they were still awarded the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, UK notched relatively easy wins over Western Kentucky (81-66), Iowa State (87-71), Indiana (102-90) and Baylor (82-70) to reach its second straight Final Four, and 15th overall, and that game featured a rematch of a New Year's Eve clash with bitter state rival Louisville. The 'Cats simply proved too much for the Cardinals to handle, as they prevailed in a 69-61 final to advance to the 11th national title game in school history. Kentucky is 110-46 in the NCAA Tournament, and has won the national title a total of seven times (1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1978, 1996 and 1998).
Calipari is wrapping up his third year as Kentucky's head coach, and he owns a record of 101-14 at the school. As mentioned, this is the second straight year in which he has his team in the Final Four. Calipari has taken three different teams to the Final Four, but the 1996 appearance by Massachusetts and the 2008 appearance by Memphis were later vacated due to NCAA rules violations. Despite the controversy that has surrounded him at different times during his career, Calipari has an impressive record of 504-152. A win tonight would give Calipari his first national crown.
The Wildcats clearly have a bullseye painted on their collective backs, but their coach has them prepared for virtually all attackers.
"I have a team that's had teams come at them all year, and they responded again today," Calipari said after the recent win over Louisville.
Even Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who, despite the bad blood that exists between himself and Calipari, and who once led the 'Cats to a national title when he was their head coach back in 1996, said he'll be rooting for Kentucky to bring the national championship back to the same Bluegrass State both schools call home. Calipari appeared moved by the gesture.
"I think that's neat," he remarked. "When I was at UMass, I can remember hugging him and telling him, 'I'm happy for you and I really want you to win the national title.' He did the same to me tonight, so I think it's kind of neat."
Kansas continues to pile up the wins and a lot of that has to do with the dynamic duo of Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor. Robinson (18.2 ppg, 11.7 rpg) has improved his game significantly since arriving in Lawrence, resulting in First-Team All-America honors this season, as well as being named the 2011-12 Big 12 Player of the Year. Taylor is a close second in the scoring column at 16.5 ppg, while leading the team in assists (4.8 apg). Elijah Johnson (10.1 ppg, 3.6 apg) is a proven performer, while center Jeff Withey (9.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.6 bpg) is relied upon most for his effort at the defensive end (school-record 136 blocks this season). Defensive pressure is also something Kansas thrives on, as it yields just 61.6 ppg while ranking fourth in the country in field goal percentage defense (.379).
Robinson scored 19 points and Travis Releford added 15, helping Kansas rally past Ohio State in Saturday's Final Four matchup. With his team appearing a bit sluggish in the first half, Johnson picked the ideal time to log his first career double-double, as he scored 13 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, and Taylor nearly registered a double-double as well, as he finished with 10 points and nine assists. With Withey blocking seven shots, the Jayhawks played tremendous defense, limiting the Buckeyes to 33.9 percent field goal efficiency and holding OSU star forward Jared Sullinger to 13 points on only 5-of-19 shooting. Coach Self would certainly like his team to shoot better from three-point range (3-of-11) and take better care of the basketball (17 turnovers), but he is obviously proud of the way his guys battled back and pulled out the win.
Kentucky also plays solid defense (60.6 ppg), but can light it up at the offensive end as well (77.6 ppg). Four of their five opponents in this tourney have allowed the Wildcats to roll up no fewer than 81 points, and they exacted revenge on Indiana for one of their two losses this season by putting up 102 points in their third-round matchup. UK is led by Davis (14.4 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 4.6 bpg), and he is coming off a double-double performance in the Final Four win over Louisville as he tallied 18 points and 14 rebounds while also adding five blocks. Doron Lamb (13.5 ppg, .465 three-point FG percentage), Terrence Jones (12.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (11.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg), Darius Miller (10.1 ppg) and Marquis Teague (9.9 ppg, 4.8 apg) are all capable of taking over game on any given night.
In addition to the effort put forth by Davis, Kentucky got 13 points from Miller and 10 from Lamb in the recent win over Louisville, and the team shot a blistering 57.1 percent from the field, despite missing five of its seven three-point tries. Defensively, the Wildcats held their bitter rivals to 34.8 percent accuracy on their field goal attempts, and while UK was outrebounded (40-33), it allowed just two Cardinals to reach double figures -- neither however, exceeding 11 points.