Keeping Score

Kentucky’s Title Legacy: How College All-Stars Can Play Like A Team

Kentucky did not beat Kansas on sheer talent alone. Defense and teamwork also played a key role.

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Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Members of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrate defeating the Kansas Jayhawks to win the men's NCAA Final Four championship college basketball game in New Orleans, Louisiana, April 2, 2012.

In 2011-2012, Kentucky assembled one of the more impressive collections of individual talents college basketball has ever seen. But this morning, they are national champions, 67-59 winners over Kansas, because all these stars sacrificed their statistics for the good of the team.

That’s not supposed to happen these days, right? Today’s players, say the grumps, grow up in an AAU culture in which the goal is to showcase your skills to the college recruiters, to the NBA scouts. These people, after all, can offer you something. It turns out, these Kentucky kids wished to offer something to themselves. They wanted to win.

It sure looked like it was going to be easy, as Kentucky raced out to a 41-27 halftime lead against the Kansas on Monday night. At times, you got the sense that it would be a blowout, along the lines of, say, UNLV’s 103-73 thrashing of Duke in the 1990 championship. A reprise of that game would have been appropriate, since so many students of college basketball have been saying that this Kentucky team reminded them of those dominant, legendary teams from Vegas.

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But Kentucky’s John Calipari, who coached superbly all season, got way too conservative in the second half. “I pulled the reins back a little bit and they were all over me,” Calipari said on CBS afterward. “‘Let us go, let us go.’ But we were trying to get out of this gym alive.” This was a strange strategic blunder. After Kentucky beat Louisville on Saturday night, I asked Calipari if he was comfortable with his players throwing risky alley-oops late in a close game, when a turnover can really cost you. Calipari said he was. “I want them to be aggressive,” Calipari responded. “We’re an attacking team. That’s what we are. I don’t want them to change.”

So why slow your team down in the title game? The more deliberate pace seemed to give Kentucky too much time to think. So the Wildcats started to miss shots, and Kansas began chipping away, cutting the lead to 48-38 with just over 10 minutes left.  But that’s when Kentucky’s habit of sharing the ball paid off.  On the seventh pass of the possession, Kentucky’s Marquis Teague, who finished with 14 points, received the ball on the left wing. But rather than fire up a three, he made the eighth pass, to a wide-open Doron Lamb in the corner. Lamb sank the three, to make it a 13-point game.

After another Kansas miss, Kentucky star Anthony Davis dribbled the ball over to Lamb, and set a screen for him. With Davis’ help, Lamb hit another three, and just like that, Kentucky’s lead was back up to 16.

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But Kansas was not done. The Jayawks went on an 8-0 run over the span of a minute, and trailed by seven, 59-52, with just under four minutes left. Teague nailed a big three to give Kentucky a little double-digit breathing room. During a timeout with just over a minute left and Kansas trailing 63-57, Kansas coach Bill Self designed a beautiful backdoor play that seemed to give Tyshawn Taylor a layup. That’s when Kentucky’s habit of playing strong defense paid off. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist flew in to block Taylor’s shot: it was Kentucky’s 11th block of the game, and one of the more clutch defensive plays you’ll ever witness.

Despite shooting 1-of-10 from the field in the game, Davis was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Such is the reward for 16 rebounds, six blocks, five assists, three steals, and a presence that doesn’t show up in his gaudy box score. Early in the second half, for example, Kansas’ Elijah Johnson drove to the left for a layup, but just flicked the ball towards the hoops since he knew Davis was in the neighborhood. Sure, Johnson avoided yet another Davis block. But the shot never had a chance of going in.

With 24 seconds left and Kansas down six, Johnson rose up for a three-point shot. But Davis sprinted from the foul lane to the left wing, like a gazelle. Unable to loft the shot over Davis’ outstretched arms, Johnson’s feet touched the ground without him releasing the ball. That’s a travel, and the turnover clinched the Kentucky championship.

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It was a title built on teamwork and defense, which are usually the hallmarks of undermanned college teams. Not one of future NBA stars.

Think what you want of Calipari and his unapologetic method of recruiting players he knows are bound to leave college for the pros in a year or two. To me, the NBA’s rule requiring them to go to school for a year is selfish. Sure, it helps the NBA’s brand to have more polished, mature players entering the league. But it turns college into a way station. And what is Calipari, who is paid a $3.8 million salary by Kentucky to win basketball games, supposed to do? Not recruit the best talents, because he knows they’ll flee him before they are sophomores? Where’s the outrage towards Lee Todd Jr., the former Kentucky president who signed Calipari to such a lucrative contract?

Dislike Calipari because he will talk about his love of shaping the lives of young men, then maybe flee for the NBA since he now has his title. But getting these stars to play together was his most masterful coaching job. And Kentucky is a deserving champion.

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