Ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation, this is what you have been waiting for. You've been waiting for this through all the dark years, throughout the long interregnum between 1998 and now. We have seen first-round losses. We have seen an NIT. We have seen many years when the Wildcats were unranked, or barely ranked. We have seen tragic losses in the regional semifinals. We have even seen a loss in the national semifinals. All that is past.
Where we are now is where we have always been born to be, where we belong, where we have been more than any team in history save one. We are in the National Finals, the penultimate wonder before the greatest wonder of all -- NCAA Tournament title #8. This is what we live for, what we breathe for, and what Adolph Rupp created for us. This is the Blue Legend, the Kentucky Wildcats, going for another NCAA Tournament title.
Tonight, your Kentucky Wildcats will face off against the Kansas Jayhawks for the 2012 NCAA Tournament crown, the ultimate achievement for which we have been working for lo, these many years. The Jayhawks are a fellow blue-blood, and there is no doubt that we owe them every ounce of respect that we would similarly owe to teams like North Carolina, Duke, or UCLA. Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, we face our peers, a program, like ours, of vast magnificence and tradition. It is an honor.
Welcome to the game preview for the Kansas Jayhawks at Kentucky Wildcats game, the contest that will decide who sits atop the Mount Everest of college basketball. We established base camp here in New Orleans three days ago, and make no mistake, our opponent is here in significant force that rivals even the Blue Mist. You may dislike or even hate the Jayhawks, but their tradition is of the highest quality. So I recommend you respect them, because your humble correspondent certainly does.
If you noticed the rambling hyperbole, you might suspect that I've been having a good time today. You would be right. Big Sky Cat and myself, along with her sister in law, my wife, and innumerable Wildcats fans, have been at the Bourbon House on Rue Bourbon drinking vast quantities of Makers' Mark bourbon in return for small basketball dipped in the famous red wax of the brand. Yes, you are jealous. Get over it.
Now, to the contest at hand: a game of basketball.
If we eschew the false modesty and are honest with ourselves, no team in college basketball matches up well with this iteration of the Kentucky Wildcats. Some teams match up better than others, and some worse. Kansas matches up reasonably well, and by dint of that fact,the oddsmakers have made the Wildcats only a 6.5 point favorite. Ken Pomeroy sees the game as a 60% favorite for the Wildcats, which is really not very big at all, and figures the final score will be separated only by 3 points, 71-68. For all kinds of reasons, I agree with him in two critical areas: 1) Kentucky is only a mild favorite to win, and 2) the score will be close.
If nothing else, we have learned that age and experience matters in the NCAA Tournament, and Kansas has a wealth of both. Kansas has been knocked out fairly early the last three years, but their players are all very experienced (their major contributors are all juniors or seniors), and this game represents the ultimate test of the John Calipari philosophy: Can young players of great skill overcome older players of lesser skill but greater experience? We will find out in short order.
For Kentucky to win this game, the most important factor is for them to execute sharply on offense. Kansas is an outstanding defensive team, literally as good as the Louisville Cardinals, so the Wildcats must find ways to score efficiently either in transition or in the half court, and preferably both.
Where Louisville is the #1 defensive team in the country, Kansas is #4. They allow opponents, in conference play, only .93 points/possession, while scoring 1.13. Kentucky, on the other hand, averages 1.2 points/possession in conference, while yielding .935. This game, on paper, is all about the defense for Kansas and offense for Kentucky.
Offense vs. Defense
The Wildcats excel in inside-the-arc defense, and as it happens, that is the strength of the Kansas offense. Kansas is a poor 3-point shooting team on the year, and manages only 23% of their points from the arc. That puts them in a very difficult spot with this Kentucky team, as they are the best 2-point FG% defense in the country. Kansas will be mainly trying to score against Kentucky's greatest strength, and that is a big problem for them.
On the other side of the ledger, Kentucky has the #2 offensive efficiency in the entire nation, most of that coming inside, but UK's 3-point offense is also very good. Kansas is faced with a "strength against strength" situation, and that normally favors the offense. The only thing really working in Kansas' favor here is the dome stadium, which tends to hurt shooters because of depth perception.
Kansas has few favorable matchups in this game, but the one they do have is with Thomas Robinson. I expect Robinson to be defended by Terrence Jones, and as good a defender as Jones is (and he is among the best in the country at his position), Robinson is probably better offensively. It will be a trick for Jones to avoid foul trouble against Robinson, but if he can, it will be a bonus for Kentucky
A problem for the Jayhawks will be Tyshawn Taylor. I strongly suspect that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will be tasked with defending Taylor, and as quick and talented as Taylor is, he is no match for MKG. If MKG manages to neutralize Taylor, the Jayhawks are in deep doo-doo from tip to horn.
Travis Releford, normally speaking, would be no problem for Kentucky, but with MKG tasked with Taylor, he becomes a mismatch. Doron Lamb is probably not quick enough or big enough to guard him effectively, so I expect to see a lot of Darius Miller, early and often. Conversely, Releford will struggle to guard the quick, clever Lamb, so I think this matchup is about even.
Anthony Davis versus Jeff Withey is intriguing. Withey is long enough and tall enough to give Davis trouble, but he is not even approximately athletic enough to guard him out on the floor. Look for Calipari to exploit that mismatch.
Elijah Johnson is also another matchup that should worry the Big Blue Nation. He is just as big as Lamb, but more athletic and explosive, as well as being a dangerous additional rebounder and one of Kansas' best 3-point shooters. It is at the 2/3 position that Kentucky will have the most difficulty tonight, which is a bit unusual given their normal strength there.
Kevin Young and Conner Teahan round out the the team, and they are both dangerous for different reasons. Young is a hybrid 3/4 who is capable of explosive bursts of scoring, and Teahan is the most dangerous 3-point shooter on Kansas' roster, although against UK he is a major defensive liability.
This game is a rare case where tempo doesn't matter that much. Both teams are good in transition, but both also have weaknesses that can be exploited if the game becomes a track meet. Expect to see both teams keep the tempo in the 65 possession range, where they are both very effective.
Kansas is an experienced team, and that will matter in the finals. They may not have Final Four or National Title experience, but this is far from their first rodeo. They have no underclassmen playing significant roles, so panic is not likely something that they will experience.
But unfortunately for Kansas, they are facing a team that is simply too talented for them. I haven't mentioned Marquis Teague, but the Jayhawks have to account for either him, or MKG, but they can't really account for both. That gives Calipari more offensive options than the Jayhawks.
Kansas will try to establish Robinson and Withey in the post, but Withey will be seriously overmatched by Davis. Davis is far too quick defensively for Withey to overcome, and that battle will likely provide the margin of victory for the Wildcats, since most o the other matchups are closer.
The Jayhawks may try to get into Daivs' body, but I predict that simply isn't going to work. Davis has put up with that all year, and for the most part, he has come out well on top. If Davis gets a number of shot blocks, this game could quickly go sideways for the Jayhawks, as no team in America can handle MKG in transition.
I wouldn't look for too many dunks. Kansas' interior defense is good, but their dunk defense is exemplary. They do have to worry about fouls on Withey, who is more prone to them than Davis, but he is taught to play similarly to Davis, which is to take the foul only rarely.
This game is bound to be a good one. Kansas is a talented team, and they know they are being disrespected by pundits and analysts against the more talented Wildcats. Many people claim that doesn't matter, but if so, they really don't know much about college basketball. Kansas will be ready, willing and able tonight, and no mistake.
For Kentucky, they really need to be sharp executing their offense. If they are, Kansas cannot stop it, and they could start a process that will lead to the ultimate demoralization of the Jayhawks. But it will be difficult, and the execution needs to carry over from half to half and happen in spite of Bill Self's adjustments. Kentucky also needs to be sharp on defense, but I don't worry as much about that, because the Wildcats have been committed to defense all year.
In the end, this game could turn on free throws, a situation which doesn't make me very happy. If UK misses their charity tosses like they did against Louisville, they could realistically face defeat.
But if Kansas tries too hard to beat Kentucky early in the game, they could wind up losing one or more of their major players to fouls, and Kansas cannot win with Robinson or Withey on the bench for significant amounts of time.
That's it. We have analyzed the game, now it's time to play. Ken will probably be doing the postmortem this evening, but if not, it will be very late getting up. Just so you know.
Here's our chance, Wildcats fans. #8 awaits, and the brass ring is right there.