NEW ORLEANS — Kansas hadn’t even left the Superdome floor Saturday night after coming from behind to stun Ohio State and reach Monday’s NCAA tournament final when the talk began.
No chance. No way. No how.
That is the prognosis for the Jayhawks when they face Kentucky in college basketball’s national championship game. The question wasn’t whether Kentucky would win, but by how much.
“We get to play the best team in the country hands down from day one until now,” Kansas Coach Bill Self said after his team had pulled yet another escape act to beat the Buckeyes, 64-62. “We could play as well as we played in the second half tonight for two halves Monday night and it might not be good enough.”
That’s the general consensus. The only real surprise of semifinal Saturday was that Louisville was able to forge a 49-49 tie with Kentucky almost 31 minutes into the game. The Wildcats quickly erased any thoughts of a monumental upset with an 11-2 run.
Kansas is a team that began the season with relatively low prospects — for Kansas. The Jayhawks were not a preseason top-10 team and weren’t picked to win The Big Twelve. Kentucky began the season ranked No. 2 — behind North Carolina — quickly ascended to No. 1 and hasn’t budged since. The Wildcats will go into the title game with a record of 37-2 (Kansas is 32-6) and a chance to tie Memphis’s record of 38 wins in a season, set four years ago when Kentucky Coach John Calipari was the Tigers’ coach.
Which is where the story line begins to become more intriguing than it may appear.
That Memphis team lost the national championship game — to Kansas. That Memphis team had the same Achilles’ heel this Kentucky team has had at times — free throw shooting. It was poor free throw shooting down the stretch that allowed Mario Chalmers to hit the three-pointer just before the buzzer that sent the game into overtime.
While Calipari vs. Rick Pitino was the sexy coaching matchup of this weekend because of the antipathy between them, Calipari vs. Self has more history, if only because the two met in one of the best championship games in recent memory just four years ago, with Calipari’s team the favorite. None of the players that night will be on the court Monday, but the two coaches playing hoops chess with one another will be the same.
The atmosphere that surrounds this game will be very different than Louisville-Kentucky, which began with neither coach looking the other in the eye during the NCAA-mandated pre-game handshake.
Even after Kentucky’s hard-fought 69-61 victory, Pitino was still lobbing not-so-subtle grenades in Calipari’s direction as he headed for the door. Asked a question about whether his team’s run to The Final Four had reinvigorated him, Pitino said this: “I think so. I marvel at what John does. I couldn’t do it. I can’t say hello and goodbye in seven months. It’s just not me. I love getting to know [senior] Kyle Kuric and [senior] Chris Smith. I feel like they’re my children, I’m part of their life.” Pause. “Not that he doesn’t feel that way about his kids.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with recruiting one-and-dones.
When his players were asked about one-and-dones a few minutes later, Calipari jumped in before anyone could answer to (again) point out that he hadn’t written the rule, his athletes hadn’t written it and if he hadn’t recruited his players, someone else would have.
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.