With that emotional mud-wrestling match finally concluded, the focus can return to basketball, which is as it should be with a national championship on the line. These are two of the sport’s most storied programs: Kentucky has won more games than anyone else in college basketball history; Kansas is second. Kentucky has won seven national titles, Kansas three.
It would appear, though, that this is very clearly Kentucky’s year. Getting to the final is a remarkable accomplishment for the Jayhawks. They have spent the entire tournament—and, it seems, the entire season—coming from behind.
They were down against Purdue in the second round and rallied to win. “It looked like we had no answers, I mean no answers, for them that night,” Self said. Except the final score.
Their Sweet 16 win against North Carolina State was decided in the final minute and, after trailing North Carolina for most of the first half, they finally pulled away to an 80-67 victory by scoring the game’s final 12 points. Saturday was no different. Ohio State led by 13 early; by nine at halftime and by three with 2 minutes 23 seconds left.
“When it’s close in the final few minutes, these guys have been through it over and over again,” Self said. “We were down 19 to Missouri at home before we rallied to win. That’s just been our way all season.”
Falling behind Kentucky could be dangerous Monday night because the Wildcats always seem to have a spurt brewing—one usually keyed by national player of the year Anthony Davis, whom Pitino compared to Bill Russell on Saturday. Kentucky is a tough, surprisingly mature and well-coached team. The college basketball world is waiting to anoint the Wildcats as one of the best teams in recent history sometime around midnight Monday.
It might not be quite that clear cut, however.
Forty-six years ago the Kentucky-Texas Western championship game was supposed to be a mere formality after the Wildcats had beaten Duke in the semifinals. Not quite: Texas Western won by six. In 1983, Dave Kindred, the great former Washington Post columnist, wrote of the Houston-North Carolina State matchup: “Trees will tap dance and elephants will drive in the Indy 500 before N.C. State beats Houston.”
Elephants, start your engines.
Georgetown was unbeatable after destroying St. John’s in the semifinals in 1985 until Villanova shot 79 percent and beat the Hoyas. And almost no one gave Kansas — yes, Kansas — any chance against Oklahoma in 1988 until Danny (Manning) and The Miracles beat the Sooners to win the title.
Finally, it is always worth remembering the words of the late Jim Valvano from 29 years ago: “Everyone says we have no chance against Houston,” he said on the eve of that now famous championship game. “They’re probably right. But I know one thing: We have a better chance to beat Houston than anyone else, because we’re playing them.”
It will no doubt take something approaching a perfect game for Kansas to win on Monday night, but the past tells us that for 40 minutes the impossible is possible. And there’s no doubt that Kansas has a better chance than anyone else to beat the Wildcats because the Jayhawks are playing them.
Somewhere, Valvano and those tap-dancing trees will no doubt be watching.
For John Feinstein’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein. For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.