NEW ORLEANS — Two similar teams. Two similar programs. One common goal — to win Monday night's NCAA Championship basketball game.
Top-ranked Kentucky and No. 6 Kansas each rely mostly on seven players.
Kentucky is the NCAA's winningest program (2,089) and has seven NCAA titles. Kansas is No. 2 in wins (2,070), with three national crowns.
"I dreamed about (the matchup) as soon as I saw the brackets," Kansas Coach Bill Self said Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. "... I said, 'How cool would it be to play Kentucky in the finals?' "
Kentucky beat Kansas 75-65 this season, but that was way back on Nov. 15, in Madison Square Garden.
"Extra motivation," said Thomas Robinson, the Jayhawks' 6-foot-10, 237-pound junior and consensus All-American. "I want payback. I don't want anyone to think they have the upper hand on me, and I've thought that way all season about Kentucky. But I get to see them again."
He also gets to see UK's fabulous freshman, Anthony Davis, who beat him out for national player of the year.
"I watch (Davis) just because I'm a fan," Robinson said. "As far the competitive nature of me and the whole player-of-the-year thing, of course I wanted to win it. But it doesn't matter now. I'm playing for something bigger, and I want a ring. That's all I care about now."
Robinson started only three games in his first two seasons. Now, he averages 17.7 points and 11.7 rebounds a game.
"It was tough coming in as a freshman and, of course, you think you're good," he said. "Coming to college, you realize you don't know as (much) as you think you know. The thing with me was, I realized that I could get better at Kansas with (assistant coach Danny) 'D' Manning and going against tough competition every day. I like that. So if I just waited my turn, which was two years, that everything would be rewarded."
That's pretty much how it went for Jeff Withey, a 7-foot, 235-pound junior who's the other half of Kansas' inside game.
Withey set a national semifinals record by blocking seven shots in a 64-62 win over Ohio State Saturday. Overall, he's averaging 9.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 blocks.
He is both a former volleyball player — which he says helped him develop a knack for blocking shots — and a former University of Louisville recruit.
He committed to U of L as a high school sophomore.
After a death in the family, he wanted to stay closer to home and switched his choice to Arizona — about an hour away by plane from his home in San Diego.
When Lute Olson retired as coach, Withey reconsidered again.
By then, his family issues had settled down. The coaching staff at Kansas, and Manning in particular, enticed him to become a Jayhawk.
"Guys like Anthony (Davis) and guys like Jeff cover up mistakes," said Self, who Sunday was named winner of the Naismith Award as coach of the year. "Like last night, we actually did an unbelievable job on the defensive glass, and Jared (Sullinger of Ohio State) got six offensive rebounds, which doesn't look good. But several of those were off of Jeff's blocks."
Self says the common denominator when Kansas is playing its best is energy. That translates to rebounding and solid defense.
Withey, not Robinson, is the one who most often will be on Davis.
"It's definitely going to be a challenge guarding him," Withey said. "He's really athletic, and he can jump. I think he gets a ton of easy baskets just by running the floor, so there's going to be an emphasis on making sure I'm back behind in transition and basically don't let him get easy dunks. They love to throw the lob to him. I think my length could bother that."
Self was asked whether Kentucky should be considered the favorite Monday.
"Yeah, they probably should. But I've never known a game to be played on paper," Self said.
Referring to TV analysts, he added, "I haven't seen anybody pick us. ... If anybody did pick us, it would probably be Digger (Phelps), and that would be the kiss of death."
Who's an underdog?
Robinson wants no part of being called an underdog.
"We're Kansas, man. I don't think we should ever get that label. ... All the expectations, all what people thought about should be out the window now," he said. "It's the last game, and we're still here. So I don't really see why we don't get the (respect) we deserve, yet that's really what got us here."
When it was suggested that Kentucky fans might jump off a bridge if the Wildcats lose Monday, Self was asked how Kansas fans would react if Kentucky won.
"Well, ours is more like probably a two- or three-story building, but not a tall bridge," Self said. "There will be enough that would jump.
"But I think our fan base is the most realistic-unrealistic group you could ever be around. Our fans' expectations are totally out of whack. Ours actually appreciate guys trying hard, playing hard, conducting themselves in a good way that you don't feel like it's life or death with every game. ... Probably the most realistic-unrealistic group you could have because they're certainly not realistic, but probably more realistic than Kentucky fans."
School of hard knocks I
Jayhawks guard Tyshawn Taylor says close games, not all with good results, have paid dividends.
"We lost a couple of those games, and we learned from those losses and got better after one of them," he said. "So I'm confident going into this game. Honestly, I always want a chance to play against a team that beat us. When you play against a team that beat you, you want that chance again. ... It's not like a revenge game. But it's one of those things — we're back now, so (just try to) do it again. ... They're going to have to play their best game to beat us. I'm excited about this game."
Same old, same old
Junior guard Elijah Johnson on the Jayhawks' game plan: "I don't think we should change anything we've done. Everyone keeps asking me questions about how we prepare differently, how we do this or that. We don't. We do what we do. It's about personnel with the other team. We know the personnel. We know our scouting report on them. We are not going to do anything different."
School of hard knocks II
Kansas has led at halftime only once during the NCAA Tournament and has shown a knack throughout the season to rally. Robinson was asked where such resolve comes from: "I think every single player, at least 80 percent of our team, personally has been through stuff off the court that people don't even know about that's just mind-boggling. But they pulled through it. ... So when it translates over to the court in tough spots, we just figure, 'It can't be worse than what I already went through.' So we just dig deeper, and we find a way to get out of it."
Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.com