Tonight at 9:23 the final college basketball game of the 2011-2012 season will tip off. Playing in the game are the two winningest programs in college history, Kentucky and Kansas. The Jayhawks are going for their fourth National Championship while the Wildcats are chasing number eight. The two teams actually played earlier this season in Madison Square Garden with Kentucky winning 75-65. That game seems like an eternity ago with both teams having made huge improvements since. Let’s preview tonight’s game and look at some of the best matchups on the floor.
This isn’t the first time these coaches have squared off against each other in the championship game. In 2008, while Calipari was at Memphis, he lost to Self in a classic game. Missed free throws and a miracle Mario Chalmers three pointer sent the game into overtime, where the Jayhawks would prevail. The win gave Self his first national championship while Calipari claims he threw the game tape out the bus window as they drove from the stadium. Now coaching at Kentucky, this is Cal’s first time back in the title game since 2008 and while he won’t say it, he wants this title very, very badly.
Anthony Davis swept all of the major National Player of the Year awards this season, but Robinson was the consensus runner up. Both are the most important players on the floor for their teams and are not replaceable. Robinson is a dominating post scorer and an excellent rebounder averaging 18 and 12 on the year. Davis can dominate a game on either end of the floor, as he is a fantastic shot blocker (4.6 per game) and an efficient scorer. He’s averaging 14 points on just 8 shots per game and has developed a lethal baby hook shot recently. Robinson will likely guard Terrance Jones on defense, but it will be interesting to see who Davis guards. Calipari may choose to keep his star on Kansas center Jeff Withey early to keep him out of foul trouble, but I’d imagine if it’s close late the defensive player of the year will take Robinson. I’m very excited to see that matchup.
When these teams met in November, Taylor led all scorers with 22 points as the senior point guard made Teague look lost in his second collegiate game. Taylor consistently beat him off the dribble, getting into the lane where he was able to draw fouls. 15 of his 22 points came from the free throw line, something the Wildcats will have to prevent tonight. So far in the tournament, John Calipari has chosen to put Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on opposing point guards but Teague will get his shots on Taylor as well. Something to watch tonight will be Taylor’s jumper. During the regular season he shot 37% from 3, but has yet to hit one in Kansas’ first five tournament games. Teague has shown tremendous improvement since the first matchup and is playing very well in the NCAA tournament averaging 13 points and 5 assists. Taylor will draw the assignment of guarding Teague and is one of the few guards in the game capable of keeping up with the Kentucky freshman’s quickness.
The Jayhawks have the 16th most efficient offense (114.8/100) in the nation, while Kentucky’s defense is the 11th most efficient (88.6/100). The Wildcats also lead the nation in field goal defense, holding teams to 37.5% shooting from the floor. The Kansas offense runs through Taylor and Robinson. In his press conference yesterday, Coach Calipari mentioned he may run some 2-3 zone on defense because of all that Robinson can do down low. I’m not sure how much I believe that since he and Ketucky have played man to man all season long, but it could add an interesting wrinkle to the coaching chess match. If the Wildcats do run a zone for more than just a few plays, Elijah Johnson becomes the X factor. During the season he shot just 33% from 3, but during the tournament has hit 10/23. He must knock down the open shot when it is presented to him to break a potential UK zone. Davis and Jones will have to defend Robinson down low without fouling. Center Jeff Withey, while not much of an offensive threat, must be ready if Kentucky decides to double team Robinson. Against Ohio State junior guard Travis Releford came up, big scoring 15 points due to the focus placed in Robinson and Taylor. He will need to have another big game if Kentucky decides to focus heavily on stopping Taylor and Robinson.
The Wildcats have the 2nd most efficient offense (123.1/100) in the country, while Kansas’ defense ranks 4th in efficiency (86.1/100). In terms of field goal defense, the Jayhawks come in at 2nd in the nation allowing 37.7% shooting from the floor. Kansas has an elite shot blocker of their own in 7’0″ junior Jeff Withey. The big man is averaging over 5 blocks per game so far in the tournament, including a 10 block performance against NC State in the Sweet 16. He will likely draw the assignment of guarding Anthony Davis of defense. While Davis excels in the pick and roll game, he is also capable of taking Withey outside and forcing him to respect his jump shot. If he can pull the 7 footer away from the basket, it will open up the inside for Kentucky’s dribble drive offense. Terrance Jones will also look to hopefully get Robinson in foul trouble by attacking him off the dribble. If Kansas decides to zone the Wildcats, Doron Lamb, Darius Miller and Kyle Wiltjer must make them pay. Lamb and Wiltjer are both hitting over 40% from three (47% and 43% respectively), and Miller makes about 37%. In the semi-final against Louisville, Kentucky was only 2/7 from deep and the Superdome seemed to affect the shooter’s sightlines. If the Wildcats aren’t hitting open shots early, I expect Kansas to pack it inside to keep them away from rim. If the game is close late, look for senior Darius Miller to make the difference. Miller is the only senior on the team getting significant minutes and offers a steadying hand when the offense sputters. He has the great midrange game you need to break a zone and has made plenty of big shots for this team already.
Kentucky is a 6.5 favorite and I’m not going to pick against them. They have the best team in the nation and would win a 7 game series against Kansas every time. However, this is the NCAA tournament and anything can happen tonight. In order to win, Kansas must aggressively attack Davis and Jones and try to get them in foul trouble. Tyshawn Taylor needs to find his outside stroke to keep Kentucky from solely focusing on Robinson down low. The Jayhawks will also need to slow the game down and protect the ball to prevent the Wildcats from getting out on the break.
Both teams only play 7 guys, so neither has an advantage in depth and will be equally affected by foul trouble. Hopefully the officials will let both teams play and not turn this into a free throw shooting contest. No one (other than ACC fans) likes to watch that kind of basketball.
Kentucky is simply the better team in this game. They play great defense, are unselfish on offense and have too many weapons for Kansas to cover. Kentucky 76 Kansas 68