The Jayhawks actually whittled what had been an 18-point lead to five — Kentucky’s lead was only 62-57 with 1 minute 38 seconds to play — and even from afar, one could almost feel thousands of nerves jangling among the blue-clad legions inside the Superdome. But unlike four years ago, when John Calipari’s Memphis players couldn’t make their free throws to hold off a fast-closing Kansas team, this Calipari-coached team did make its free throws.
The Wildcats missed just one free throw with Kansas trying to foul in those final seconds and, appropriately, the game’s last rebound ended up in Anthony Davis’s hands just before the clock finally ran out.
In a very real sense, the ending of this game and this season was a microcosm of what college basketball is in 2012. As soon as the final buzzer sounded, the Superdome was filled with sound, not from celebrating fans, but from the Hollywood-like pyrotechnics the NCAA insists on bombarding people with in its attempts to glitz up an event that doesn’t need to be glitzed up.
Nowadays, though, all the sound and noise fit because the national title game has the feel of an NBA all-star game, and most of the players who make it to the Final Four dream first of that game and the billboards and shoe deals that come with it rather than the game Kentucky won on Monday night.
Perhaps it is time for the NCAA to change its cheesy post-championship theme song. Instead of “One Shining Moment,” a new song: “One Moment and Done,” words and music by Calipari, might be more fitting.
The master salesman has been worth every penny of the $32 million Kentucky committed to paying him over an eight-year period when he was hired in 2009. He has figured out how to beat the system. He has pointed out repeatedly and correctly that if he had not recruited Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague to play this season, someone else would have. He got sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb — who had a game-high 22 points on Monday, including two huge three-pointers that stretched Kentucky’s margin to 16 midway through the second half — to come back for a second year. He had the added bonus of a senior — stop the presses! — who could shoot the basketball in Darius Miller.
Those six players, inexperienced as they appeared to be, meshed into a team that played hard and smart just about every night for 40 games.
The key to the equation was Davis. As good as the others are, it’s almost impossible to be hyperbolic when talking about the 6-foot-10 freshman who almost certainly will never be a sophomore and will be the first person shaking hands with David Stern at the NBA draft in June. Comparisons have been made to Bill Russell, which is frightening — no teenager should live with that burden. Others liken him to Tim Duncan, which is fairer, especially because Duncan was still learning how to play as a freshman and wasn’t nearly the player Davis is at that stage of his career.
The game Davis had on Monday was proof that he can dominate a game without scoring very much. He had six points on 1-for-10 shooting. But it didn’t matter because he also had 16 rebounds, six blocks (Kentucky had 11 as a team, setting an NCAA title game record), five assists and three steals.
Beyond that, though, Davis’s presence opened up space for his teammates on offense and forced Kansas into numerous missed layups. The Jayhawks may have gone home with a collective crick in their necks after spending the entire evening looking over their shoulders for Davis.
About the only thing that might have stopped Kentucky on Monday night was Calipari, who clearly got a little bit nervous with the championship in sight and tried to run out the clock way too early. To his credit, Calipari readily admitted his mistake.
“I wanted the game over and I took away a little of their aggressiveness,” he said in a postgame interview. “The guys were screaming at me, ‘Coach, let us play!’ and I finally realized it and let ’em play. After that, we were okay.”
The Wildcats were good enough against a resourceful Kansas team that made a living out of coming from behind throughout this tournament. And for a brief moment, the Jayhawks looked like they might have one last miracle left in them.
But Kentucky took one last deep breath and attacked Kansas’s three-point shooters in the final minute while finally making those free throws. In so doing, the Wildcats removed the large boulder that had been sitting on Calipari’s back since Mario Chalmers hit that tying three-pointer for a different Kansas team against a different Calipari school four years ago in San Antonio.
In truth, all the questions of the winter of 2012 were answered on this particular Monday night. Can a team built on one-and-dones, with a couple sophomores sprinkled in, win on the biggest stage?
Can Calipari win his first title?
Can the NCAA overkill everyone to death in every possible way?
Is it time for NCAA President Mark Emmert, Stern and NBA Players Association President Billy Hunter to stop pointing fingers at one another and get serious about a rule that takes away the drive-through college basketball player?
That last one, though, is for later. For right now, the kudos should go to Calipari and his players. He was smart enough to recruit them and, on the first Monday night in April, they were good enough — more than good enough — to bring home a championship.
For John Feinstein’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/
feinstein. For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.