To the toughest go the spoils in NCAA title game

jtipton@herald-leader.comApril 1, 2012 

  • Kentucky vs. Kansas

    When: 9:23 p.m. Monday | Where: The Superdome in New Orleans | TV: CBS-27 | Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1, WLXG-AM 1300

    Records: Kentucky 37-2, Kansas 32-6 | Series: Kentucky leads 20-6 | Last meeting: Kentucky won 75-65 on Nov. 15, 2011, in New York

NEW ORLEANS — In the first national championship game between two of the bluest of college basketball blue bloods, Kentucky carries its head a bit higher than Kansas.

"There's not many Anthony Davises walking around here," teammate Darius Miller said Sunday of UK's national player of the year. "There's not many Terrence Joneses walking around here either."

Although Thomas Robinson played at near Davis' level, Kansas conceded the point. But the Jayhawks intend to compete in Monday night's championship game of the NCAA Tournament.

"On paper, their record is better, and their stats are better," Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor said. "But it's only 40 minutes. None of that matters anymore."

Kansas wants to make it hard for Kentucky from tipoff to final buzzer. A mid-December loss to Davidson convinced the Jayhawks, one of the sport's patrician programs, to rely on proletarian methods: defense, rebounding and tough-mindedness.

"We really didn't have an identity," Kansas Coach Bill Self said. "What do we hang our hat on? Every team has to have that."

With four new starters, Self preached from October on that Kansas could not outscore nor out-talent top teams.

"Yeah, all right," Taylor said with a dismissive tone when asked the players' reaction to Self's assessment.

An 80-74 loss to Davidson on Dec. 19 converted the skeptical players.

"We got to the point; there's no question what we hang our hat on," Self said. "That's defending, rebound, be tough. That's kind of who we are."

After Kansas rallied from 13 down to beat Ohio State in Saturday's national semifinals (which mirrored a comeback from 11 down against Purdue two weeks earlier), Self made no secret of the need to prevent Kentucky from settling into a comfortable "rhythm" Monday night.

"If Kentucky plays their best, they're going to be so, so hard to beat," he said. "By anybody if they play their best."

Then Self added, "It's easier said than done."

Self lavished praise on the talent level and coaching by John Calipari that propelled Kentucky to a 37-2 record.

"They're one of the better teams that we've had in college basketball probably from a pure talent standpoint," he said. "They've got six pros."

Taylor made much the same point.

"They've probably got the best five, six, seven guys," he said. "On paper, anyway. I think they're really talented."

Then in assessing how Kansas needed to continue playing the kind of gritty basketball that produced five victories in this NCAA Tournament despite not once making more than 46 percent of its shots, Taylor said, "Do what we have been doing to get us here. We have to defend. We have to be tough. Rebound the ball. And we have to get good shots.

"I think if we do that, take care of the ball, limit their transition, I think we're right in the ball game right there."

That Taylor listed six must-dos on the list seemed telling.

In dismissing a question about free-throw shooting, Calipari said, "It will come down to that 'physicalness' of play. Are we playing people before they catch it? Are we getting open before we catch the ball? Are we getting in a (defensive) stance and staying down? Doing a better job rebounding?"

Kentucky and Kansas rank Nos. 1 and 2 in field-goal defense. Each ranks in the top 10 in blocks (UK No. 1, Kansas No. 9) and top 25 in rebounding margin (UK No. 12, Kansas No. 22).

In other words, Kansas is not — pardon the pun — defenseless in the championship game.

"We've got a guy that has kind of battled Anthony neck and neck, for the most part, for national player of the year," Self said of Robinson. "We've got guards that can play with anybody, in my opinion.

"We've got a shot blocker (7-footer Jeff Withey) that's hot right now (20 blocks in the last three games). We've got a wing that can guard.

"We've got a lot of nice pieces, too."

Self conceded that even a combination of defense, rebounding and toughness probably will not be enough to beat Kentucky.

"We know we have to make shots against Kentucky," he said. "You're not going to hold Kentucky to 50 points."

But it's a good place to start a game plan.

"I think the worst thing you can tell a coach is that his team is soft," Self said. "You can say it's selfish. You can say they don't like each other. You can say they can't shoot. But somebody calls you soft, that's not good.

"There's been stretches we played soft, like all teams."

To Self's eyes, Kansas hasn't played soft for a while.

"There's going to be a tough-minded team playing tomorrow wearing a dark jersey," he said of the Jayhawks. "And there's going to be a tough-minded team wearing a white jersey. Both teams are very mentally tough."

But only one can win the national championship.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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