NCAA Tournament Championship Preview
OUR NCAA TOURNAMENT CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREVIEW
HERE'S THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION: CAN KANSAS K.O. MIGHTY KENTUCKY TONIGHT?
By Jim Hurley:
So, you don't think the College Basketball world has a "sense of humor"?
Here we all are on the eve of the NCAA Championship Game - an absolutely titanic tilt between the Kentucky Wildcats and the Kansas Jayhawks (yes, the two winningest programs in college hoops history) and UK Wildcats boss-man John Calipari is once again pitted against the gentleman who kept him from winning a first-ever title back in 2008.
Okay, so that was Calipari's Memphis team - one that couldn't nail a meaningful free throw if its collective life depended on it - against Bill Self's Kansas club that won an ultra-dramatic '08 championship game in overtime after coming from nine points down and now "Coach Cal" must go through Self and Rock/Chalk/Jayhawk Nation again here.
And with a championship on the line ... again.
And knowing full well Calipari has the better team - again.
Perhaps lightning can strike twice and no doubt the here-and-now Jayhawks hope that's the case - but the sharpies in Las Vegas have installed Kentucky as a 6-point betting favorite and you tell us what folks seriously thought Kentucky would lose a game in this man's tournament?
It's lights, camera, action time in "The Big Easy" and we'll get to our Jim Sez Championship Game Preview in just a moment but first this important reminder:
NCAA TOURNAMENT CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Superdome - New Orleans, LA
#2 KANSAS (32-6) vs. #1 KENTUCKY (37-2) - 9:23 p.m. ET, CBS
One thing everyone learned in this past weekend's Final Four games is that no lead is safe - Kansas barged back five different times from 13-point deficits to topple 3-point favorite Ohio State 64-62 in the nightcap on Saturday after Kentucky had nearly blown a similar 13-point second-half lead against Louisville in that grind-'em-out 69-61 non-cover win in the opener.
The reason Kansas has been so darn good in come-from-behind situations all tournament and all season long is because Self's guys "get it":
They make the key stops on defense and, as the head coach himself put it, they don't try to score any "13-point plays" as it's a process that can take a long time. Okay, so it very much helped the cause that Ohio State missed its first 13 FGs tries coming out of intermission and really didn't probe the Kansas defense but who's fault was that? The bottom line is Kansas is - if you will - comfortable in a come-from-behind mode and the Big 12 regular-season champs won't get spooked here if forced to make up ground on the scoreboard in this all-or-nothing clash.
On the flip side, Kentucky is used to meeting any/all challenges as the 'Cats answered neatly after a 13-5 Louisville run tied the game at 49-apiece the other night. No doubt you can answer such enemy runs when you have Player of the Year F/C Anthony Davis on your side as the long-armed freshman was fantastic with 18 points, 14 rebounds and a wicked 5 blocked shots but the Kentucky kids really have to do some soul-searching for this title game after getting out-boarded 37-to-32 and keep in mind the 'Ville piled up some 16 offensive boards and so expect Kansas to send the "kitchen sink" at the offensive glass here as second- and/or third-chance opportunities for points could be the difference tonight.
Hey, much is being made about how Kentucky made a "statement" with those key second-half dunk-the-house slams by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist two nights ago but let's examine this factoid: Calipari's guys only drilled 2-of-7 triples - we told you last week that Kentucky had to incorporate more trifectas into its game and it didn't (yet still survived Louisville) and here the 'Cats must take and make more 3's or else Kansas' defense (and we include that funky Self-made triangle-and-two look) will be able to sag off on Kentucky's perimeter guys and double/triple-team Davis here.
Conversely, Kansas won the backboard battle 41-to-30 in its Final Four win against Ohio State - how about five different Jayhawks snagging 5-or-more rebs in that tilt? - and probably cannot win this title game without getting 12-to-15 offensive boards here and so it will be essential that Thomas Robinson (19 points and 8 rebounds against Ohio State and that includes 3 offensive caroms) be very active here and not "run out of gas" as he must put forth another 35-or-so minute performance plus the Kansas guards must help out on the glass and so keep a close eye here on PG Tyshawn Taylor who did chip in 10 points and 9 assists in the Final Four win versus the Buckeyes but he must board-bang too here.
What to Watch For - Kentucky can play at any speed but look for Calipari to favor a more go-go game in the first half in the hopes of both tiring out the aforementioned Robinson and make Kansas shot-blocker Jeff Withey (see 8 rebounds and 7 blocks against Ohio State) a less stationary figure. Think about it: If Kentucky allows this to be a walk-the-ball-up-the-floor game than Withey has time to set up shop and be set to block the cutters/slashers on the Wildcats (see G Jeff Teague and the aforementioned Kidd-Gilchrist, for example) and that plays right into the Jayhawks' collective hands here.
Meanwhile, Kansas would love to expose the ball-handling woes of the 'Cats - yes, Louisville head coach Rick Pitino seized that part of the game the other night as five steals troubled "Big Blue". If Taylor and fellow G Elijah Johnson can pick some pockets out by half-court, than Kansas might be able to get 10-to-15 "easy points" and Calipari has to be a tad concerned that his youthful team doesn't take better care of the ball out in the open floor - so stay tuned.
The X-Factors - Simply put, what team gets to the free-throw line more and what team does more with its said FT opportunities?
As everyone knows by now, folks were singing the praises of the Kentucky kids for shooting better than 80 percent overall in those back-to-back Sweet 16/Elite 8 wins against Indiana and Baylor but than the 'Cats gagged a big from the charity stripe last Saturday while bagging just 11-of-20 FTs and no doubt Calipari could have fateful visions of this team missing lost of foul shots here (a la Memphis) and losing with all the marbles on the line.
On the flip side, Kansas drilled home 11-of-14 foul shots in the comeback win against Ohio State and while Robinson struggled some here (see 3-of-6 FTs) the tandem of Taylor and Travis Releford (both of whom shot 4-of-4 from the stripe) were rock-solid - a 17-of-20 type game here from the line with some Kentucky struggles could make this a very tight for Calipari's guys.
The Final Word - Kentucky remains very much in this precarious win-or-else mode but the young kids led by Davis have handled the pressures exceedingly well. Now it's the big stage and nobody ever knows how "kids" are gonna react in the final act while Kansas has played this tourney with an at-times reckless abandon that has served 'em well. Still, is this the night the J-hawks get behind 12, 13 or 15 points and can't put its foot on the gas pedal?
KANSAS' NCAA TOURNAMENT GAMES
|3-16||Kansas||- 13.5||Detroit||Kansas 65-50|
|3-18||Kansas||- 8||Purdue||Kansas 63-60|
|3-23||Kansas||- 8.5||N.C. State||Kansas 60-57|
|3-25||Kansas||- 2||North Carolina||Kansas 80-67|
|3-31||Ohio State||- 3||Kansas||Kansas 64-62|
KENTUCKY'S NCAA TOURNAMENT GAMES
|3-15||Kentucky||- 26.5||Western Kentucky||Kentucky 81-66|
|3-17||Kentucky||- 12||Iowa State||Kentucky 87-71|
|3-23||Kentucky||- 9.5||Indiana||Kentucky 102-90|
|3-25||Kentucky||- 8.5||Baylor||Kentucky 82-70|
|3-31||Kentucky||- 8.5||Louisville||Kentucky 69-61|
Note: Catch our Major-League Baseball 2012 overview/preview in the next edition of Jim Sez.
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