(Sorry, couldn’t resist).
And at long last, the NCAA Championship arrives. From the South, we have the Kentucky Wildcats, the overall top-ranked team entering the tournament. And from the Midwest, we have the Kansas Jayhawks, who with a win could tie Duke for fifth-most championships in NCAA history.
But they won’t. Kentucky’s gonna win. Sorry, Kansas.
Kentucky and Kansas basically play the same kind of basketball: their offenses focus on scoring in the paint and getting to the line, and their defenses primarily play half-court and rely on shot-blocking. Unfortunately, if Saturday’s NCAA semifinals are any indication, Kentucky just does these things better.
Despite their considerable skill, Kansas showed a stupidity Saturday that Kentucky didn’t. Kansas passed stupid, throwing the ball repeatedly into triple-teamed teammates, resulting in 17 turnovers and seven blocked shots. They shot stupid as well, relying too often on bizarre scoops and hooks that had zero chance of going in. They even played stupid defense at times, screwing up switches or just forgetting to cover all five opponents.
If Kansas makes the same mental mistakes Monday night, Kentucky’s well-oiled offensive machine will annihilate them. Kansas took 56 shots Saturday and converted 44.6 percent of them. Kentucky only took 49 shots, but they shot with 57.1 percent accuracy. Kentucky shoots lights-out, making even a few extra turnovers by the other team nearly catastrophic.
Beyond Kansas’ inconsistencies, their size could really hurt them. Though slightly shorter, Kentucky’s players average a 10-pound strength advantage over Kansas. Kentucky’s big men, meanwhile, are on average 16 pounds stronger than Kansas’. That could easily translate to more Kentucky free throws, who in the regular season took more free throws than almost any other Division I team.
As a sign of their strength, Kentucky went to the line six more times than Kansas (20 vs. 14) during the semifinals. Kansas shot better at the line, but if both teams do what they did during the regular season, fouls will benefit Kentucky far more.
If Kentucky can assert itself from the post early on, they’ll put Kansas in foul trouble. The opposite could also happen, but Kentucky’s bench looked far more impressive than Kansas’ Saturday. The Wildcats got 13 points, perfect free throw shooting, three rebounds and two steals from reserve guard Darius Miller. Backup big Kyle Wiltjer kicked in five points, a rebound and a steal in just seven minutes.
Kansas got three points from its bench. That’s it. Their starters can absolutely handle extra minutes and scoring responsibilities, but if Kentucky starts hanging fouls on Kansas’ bigs, the bench might not be able to respond.
Kentucky’s hottest player right now is Anthony Davis, who against Louisville scored 18, grabbed 14 boards and blocked five shots. For Kansas, it’s Thomas Robinson, who dropped 19 and eight on Ohio State. In a 1-on-1 matchup, Robinson’s size probably gives him the edge. But Kentucky started three forwards Saturday night, whereas Kansas only started two.
Kentucky’s other two forwards – Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – are bigger than Davis, meaning Coach John Kalipari (who once almost came to blows with Temple coach John Chaney, for what it’s worth) could easily swing Davis over to cover a guard and leave his biggest front-court guys to duke it out with Kansas’. And at 6-foot-10, 220 pounds, Davis dwarfs the tallest Kansas guard by three inches and 15 pounds.
Even if Kansas coach Bill Self sends a big to help out on Davis, that just opens up a bigger mismatch elsewhere on the court. The Wildcats just have too many weapons at their disposal, too many different options to be successfully contained.
Kansas’ best chance to win will be in the paint. Kentucky showed a vulnerability to offensive rebounds that Kansas (12 offensive boards against OSU) might be able to exploit. But going up against the best blocking team in NCAA history, Kansas may not be able to do much with their extra possessions besides run out the clock. And as one of the worst-shooting three-point teams in the NCAA (.235 accuracy from downtown during the regular season), Kansas doesn’t have the mid and long-range shooters necessary to win a low-possession game.
The Jayhawks have had a terrific season and a terrific tournament, winning the Big 12 and making it to their 14th Final Four. But the Wildcats have had the spotlight all season long, and they’ve never wilted beneath it.
Expect nothing different Monday night.
Final score: Kentucky 70, Kansas 65