There are no Butlers in this one, baby.
After two years in which the Bulldogs crashed the championship game – almost winning one of them on a miracle shot, then going ice cold in another – the big boys are back: Kentucky and Kansas, both college basketball royalty, will square off for the title on Monday night. These are the two winningest programs in Division 1 history, Kentucky with 2,089 victories in 109 seasons, and Kansas — once coached by the inventor of basketball himself, James Naismith — with 2,070 since its first season in 1899.
Both teams are connected through history. Legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp, the “Baron of the Bluegrass”, attended Kansas from 1919-1923. There, he was mentored by Phog Allen, who coached at Kansas for 39 years and won an NCAA title in 1952. (Allen also played for Naismith at Kansas.) Rupp — whose legacy, we should add, was tainted by his refusal for years to recruit black players — retired in 1972 with 872 wins, more than any other college coach at the time.
Kentucky coach John Calipari started his career at Kansas an assistant for Larry Brown, who played for Dean Smith, another Kansas alum, at the University of North Carolina.
Though Kansas-Kentucky harkens back to college basketball’s past, the matchup is a product of the modern game. Kentucky head coach John Calipari has exploited a rule, on the books since 2005, that requires potential NBA players to be at least 19 years old, or to have spent at least a year in college, before entering the pro draft. His sales pitch is simple: we run an NBA factory at Kentucky. Come here, win 30 games, and move along for millions. This year the Wildcats will likely lose six players — three freshmen, two sophomores, and a senior — to the NBA.
Kentucky also has a star, 6’10” center Anthony Davis, who would not have existed during Rupp’s days. Back then, big men parked near the basket. Although Davis is deft down low — his footwork, ability to shoot close-range shots with both hands, and a wingspan that stretches across Kentucky guarantee he’ll be the top pick of this year’s draft — he’s also comfortable dribbling the ball up the floor and playing out by the perimeter. Davis grew up playing guard until an eight-inch growth spurt in high school made him a big man. After Kentucky’s Saturday night win over Louisville, Calipari joked that he’d let Davis, who scored 18 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, and blocked five shots against the Cardinals, play point guard next year as a way of coaxing him back to Kentucky for a sophomore season. Nice try.
How can Kansas beat Kentucky? Kansas is no squad of scrappy underdogs: 6’10” power forward Thomas Robinson, for example, is also an NBA lottery pick. The Jayhawks, led by Naismith Coach of the Year Bill Self, execute exquisitely on offense. Kentucky largely relies on pro-level players making shots of pro-level difficulty (except for when point guard Marquis Teague drives the length of the floor for layups, like he did when a clueless Louisville D forgot to cover him on Saturday night). And even the pros have off nights. Davis may be tall and speedy, but he’s a beanpole, and Kansas’ physical post players have the ability to push him around. Maybe they can force Davis into foul trouble.
Calipari sometimes gets accused of rolling out the balls and letting his team play, but that’s not true at Kentucky: this year’s team is famously unselfish. Davis, for example, is fourth on the team in shots-per-game. No one averages more than 9.4 shots per game. If there was one flaw in Kentucky’s game on Saturday night, it was rebounding effort. After keeping Louisville off the boards at the start, Kentucky let the Cardinals crash the glass for 19 offensive rebounds, which helped them crawl back into the game. Monday night, look for Kansas’ bruising big men to chase every opportunity down low.
Would a Kansas win be considered an upset? I think so: few college basketball teams are more talented, on paper, than the 2012 Wildcats. But it wouldn’t be a total shocker. After all, we’re talking about Kansas. And if we’re lucky, the game itself will be as historic as the two schools playing in it.