Less talented Jayhawks in prime position to stun Kentucky

Finally, John Calipari gets another shot at Bill Self.

Four years ago with a national championship hanging in the balance, Self’s Kansas Jayhawks capitalized on a botched Derrick Rose free throw and went on to take the title in overtime. Coach Cal has since relocated from Memphis to Lexington and this time around, he returns to the pinnacle of college hoops with an even stronger roster.

With a win Monday night, Kansas head coach Bill Self would be 4-for-4 in the Final Four. (Jamie Squire/Getty)
Like Rose before him, humble Chicago south sider and future No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis stars as Calipari’s best player. Davis leads a Kentucky cast of six potential NBA lottery picks up against Self and the scrappy Kansas Jayhawks, who continue to win close games.

The Wildcats are a six-point favorite in the title game, which might seem a little low considering the comments made by two respected basketball analysts last week. NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley and title-winning college coach Gary Williams led the charge, saying that Kentucky has the talent to beat a few NBA teams.

As if Big Blue Nation needed their horns tooted any more. The undoubted favorite in bracket pools and the minds of experts, Kentucky has been the popular pick all season long. And it’s getting out of hand. Even in victory, pundits defend them. “They played poorly against Louisville and still won,” penned one scribe. “Nobody can beat them,” wrote another.

Yet the elephant in the room remains.

If Kentucky’s anthem is “The Best Is Yet to Come,” then the Kansas theme song is “I Will Survive.” Against Ohio State on Saturday night, the Jayhawks turned the rock over 17 times, shot an ice cold 27 percent from three-point land and trailed for 90 percent of the game. It was the poorest performance that nobody is defending.

But they’re still alive.

Kansas might not beat an NBA team, but they deserve your attention. They have stared down the gun barrel twice this tournament but remain unscathed after pulling out improbable last minute wins against Purdue and Ohio State. They’ve shown an incredible resilience over the past two weeks that is hard to ignore. And dare I say it, the Jayhawks are in a prime position to knock off Goliath.

To beat Kentucky, you must make them conform to your style. Iowa State missed 19 threes, and those long rebounds allowed Kentucky to wreak havoc in transition. Baylor and Indiana tried to outrun the Wildcats and it played right into their hands. Louisville was on the right track, but they ran out of gas; probably all the energy exerted in the full court press. The Cardinals played from behind the entire game and their jump shots just didn’t have legs down the stretch.

Chicago native Anthony Davis and the Wildcats have lost only two games all year. (Joe Robbins/Getty)
Kansas matches up very well with the ‘Cats and I like their chances to throw a wrench in the works. There’s a reason the Jayhawks have come so far this year despite not having as much individual talent as the past two seasons. They are cognizant of their strengths and they pass up threes for opportunities to attack the rim. Self will likely construct a blue print with three emphases: (1) play at their pace, (2) drive to the bucket, (3) control the paint.

To win, Kansas needs to keep Kentucky in a half court offense. The Wildcats are so efficient in transition and offensive spurts can be frequent, but slowing the game down and shrinking the court is a must. Of course, high percentage shots taken by KU will only help the cause. Self’s squad has been disciplined over the course of the tournament – especially after halftime adjustments – to cross the three-point threshold and create off the bounce.

In the half court, Calipari loves to run high screen and roll with Anthony Davis at the top of the key. Davis starts with the ball and in a bang-bang motion, he gives to a guard while setting a simultaneous screen. Most teams have switched defensively, giving Davis a free run to the basket for an alley-oop over a much shorter defender. Withey has to stay home and body up to eliminate easy baskets. If I’m Bill Self, I’m much more content with UK shooting jumpers than I am with their bigs getting aerial above the rim.

For Kansas to have offensive success, it’s paramount that point guard Tyshawn Taylor gets into a rhythm early. The senior had a rough going against Ohio State on 3-of-11 shooting, but he drew arguably the best on ball defender in the country in OSU’s Aaron Craft. Things should run a little smoother against UK freshman Marquis Teague, who has been far from spectacular defensively. Taylor’s ability to blow by his man and draw defenders is crucial. If he drives to the rack and forces Kentucky to help on ‘D,’ the shooters on the wing will be open and Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey will get easy looks inside.

Speaking of Robinson, the All-American is dangerous with his back to the basket. He’s bigger and stronger than you and there isn’t anybody with a better arsenal of post moves in the country. T-Rob is one of the few big men that can catch, turn and score. And he gets to the foul line. He’ll get some shots blocked, but his combination of finesse and power should be enough to counter the length of Kentucky. It will be interesting to see if Calipari puts Davis or Terrence Jones on Robinson. Davis is best suited to guard #0, but the ‘Cats cannot afford their superstar to fall into early foul trouble.

Let the chess game begin.

The stage is set and the lights couldn’t be brighter. Tonight at 9:23 p.m. ET, the most star studded national championship in college basketball history will tip off. Scouts and experts alike believe that nine players will be selected in the 2012 NBA Draft. In fact, the first three picks could all be in action this evening with Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Thomas Robinson sitting atop most draft boards.

All eyes will be on Naismith College Player of the Year Anthony Davis, Kentucky’s human highlight reel that grew seven inches between his junior and senior year. Some say he’s the best pro prospect at the college level in two decades. Calipari says Davis is the next Marcus Camby, but dare I say his ceiling is Tim Duncan with handles. I’m simply amazed at Davis’s unselfishness and the fact that his game is built around defense is just the icing on the cake. He’s a true freshman and a true leader. Even Michael Jordan couldn’t mess this pick up.

No stranger to adversity, Thomas Robinson leads a pack of Kansas upperclassmen into the title game. (Getty)
This year’s title game could be the changing of the guard in college basketball. Should Kentucky win, coaches might follow Calipari’s lead and try to build teams on a year-by-year basis with players that will bolt at the first sniff of dollar signs. If Kansas pulls the upset, old school college hoops fans – and yours truly – will rejoice and applaud a team full of guys that stayed in school and came back for more.

If you really think about, Kansas is the anti-Kentucky. The Jayhawks start five upperclassmen, all of whom have “paid their dues” and worked their way up the depth chart. In practice last year, Robinson and Withey had circles ran around them by the Morris twins. (Both were drafted in the lottery). On the opposite end of the spectrum stands the young, talented Wildcats, who have nobody in the starting lineup that can legally walk up to a bar and buy a drink. And while there’s no question that Kentucky has more pro prospects, sports have taught us time and time again that talent isn’t always enough.

There’s just something about Kansas. They’ve really grown on me. The Jayhawks have overcome adversity to win all the close games – games that they had no business winning. I love their moxie, their willingness to play physical and their experience. I also respect the difficulty of their schedule, the second toughest in the country behind only Michigan State. Stockpiled with the best high school players in the world and multiple millionaires-to-be, Kentucky is the popular pick. But I have to be bold.

Upset city in the Bayou… Kansas 69, Kentucky 67. Bill Self outcoaches the smooth talking Calipari yet again, further proving that talent gets a team in the building, but it takes a little seasoning to cut down the nets.

Rock Chalk.

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