By Wendell Barnhouse | firstname.lastname@example.org
NEW ORLEANS – Ken Pomeroy, the statistical guru of college basketball, can calculate and extrapolate just about any aspect of the game. According to his web site, when Kansas trailed by 13 in the first half against Ohio State in Saturday's Final Four semifinal, the Jayhawks' chance of winning was 12 percent.
Sounds about right and sounds a bit wacky. A school as tradition rich as Kansas shouldn't be considered the Hickory High of this year's NCAA Tournament. But this season has been all about defying predictions and exceeding expectations. So why shouldn't the final game be a microcosm of the season?
Kentucky has won more games than any program; Kansas is second. Kentucky is playing for the national championship for the 12th time and trying to win its ninth title. Kansas is playing for its ninth national title and had won three times. But those facts aren't the reason why the Wildcats are favored to beat the Jayhawks when the two teams meet in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Monday (8:23 p.m., CBS).
The Wildcats (37-2) have the national player of the year in 6-10 freshman Anthony Davis. In his Final Four debut, Davis had 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots in the victory over Louisville. The last player to put up those kind of numbers in a Final Four was Danny Manning of Kansas in 1988. Freshmen Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marcus Teague, sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb and senior Darius Miller are capable of scoring 25 or more.
"They got high expectations," Kansas senior guard Tyshawn Taylor said. "The expectations should be high for them. We think that we match up with them well. We feel confident going into this game. We don't listen to what people say about Kentucky. We just do what we got to do and I think we'll be fine."
Kentucky is the overall No. 1 seed and has won five NCAA Tournament games by the average margin of 25 points. The Wildcats haven't trailed once in the second half in this NCAA tournament. On two occasions, UK was tied after intermission – by Iowa State in the round of 32 and by Louisville in Saturday's Final Four semifinal.
Kansas, meanwhile, has been "winning ugly." The Jayhawks have not had the lead at halftime in any of their last four games.
"Kentucky's terrific. They've been the best team in the country basically from start to finish," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "They're one of the better teams that we've had in college basketball probably from a pure talent standpoint. They got six pros. Three of them probably lottery picks. They're really, really, really talented."
This is the first time the three games at the Final Four have been rematches of regular-season contests. In Saturday's semifinals, the team that won the first game also won the second. That mini-trend is bad news for the Jayhawks. In mid-November, Kansas played its second game of the season against Kentucky in Madison Square Garden. The score was tied at halftime before the Wildcats pulled away for a 75-65 victory.
That was before Kansas established its identity. Some of Self's teams have been talented enough to rely on out-scoring the opposition; defense and rebounding weren't at the top of the list. But this team, with role players becoming key performers, with two "stars" – Taylor and Thomas Robinson – has needed to grind down its opponents with defense, rebounding and toughness.
In the second half of Kansas' five NCAA Tournament games, the opponent has shot just 25.7 percent from the field. If Kentucky can run away and hide, build up an insurmountable lead in the first half, it will be a dull national championship game.
The Wildcats came out smoking in the first half against Louisville, making 60 percent of their shots and building a double-digit lead. But the Cardinals came back to tie the game midway through the second half before Kentucky sealed the deal.
"Our guys look forward to (the re-match)," Self said. "These guys want to play against the best. They've watched Kentucky all year long. They've listened to people talk about them, and they've already cleaned our clock once.
"On paper, Kentucky should be favored. But I've never known a game to be played on paper."
Taylor, the player who can change the game for both teams, has missed his last 23 3-point attempts. He said Sunday that he's due, that if he's got open shots he'll fire away. As Wayne Gretzky said, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take.
Kansas is going to take its shot.
"Honestly, I think we've been going through this whole tournament feeling no pressure," Taylor said. "We've got one game left, that's it. I mean, 40 minutes, anybody can get beat. We can come out and play and we can be a better team for 40 minutes."
No. 2 Kansas (32-6) vs. No. 1 Kentucky (37-2)
8:23 p.m. Monday, New Orleans, CBS
Why they're here: Kansas was an at-large selection from the Big 12. The Jayhawks defeated No. 15 seed Detroit, No. 10 seed Purdue, No. 11 seed North Carolina State, No. 1 seed North Carolina and No. 2 seed Ohio State. Kentucky was an at-large selection from the Southeastern Conference. The Wildcats defeated No. 16 seed Western Kentucky, No. 8 seed Iowa State, No. 4 seed Indiana, No. 3 seed Baylor and No. 4 seed Lousville.
Coaches: Bill Self, Kansas; John Calipari, Kentucky.
Scouting Kansas: The Jayhawks claim they win ugly but that's the perception when you rely on defense, rebounding and toughness. Kansas is shooting 41.4 percent from the field and an anemic 24.1 percent from 3-point range in five NCAA victories but is out-rebounding opponents by nearly six per game and limiting them to 35.3 percent shooting. Junior guard Elijah Johnson has raised his game and is averaging 13.4 points while making 43.5 percent of his free throws. Jeff Withey is the team's rim protector. He blocked a Final Four record seven shots in the semifinal victory and his 136 rejections is a Big 12 Conference single-season record. Senior guard Tyshawn Taylor has missed his last 23 3-point attempts.
Scouting Kentucky: The Wildcats have five players averaging in double figures and another at 9.9 points per game. For a team so talented, the unselfishness is impressive. Freshman Anthony Davis leads the team in scoring at 14.4 per game but he takes three other players have taken more shots. The 6-10 Davis also averages 10.2 rebounds and 4.6 blocks per game. Kentucky has outscored its opponents by 17 points a game but can lose focus for stretches. Doron Lamb, a 6-4 sophomore, is the top 3-point threat at 46.5 percent. Michael Kid-Gilchrist, a 6-7 freshman, is an all-around talent who can score around the basket, from the perimeter and finish on the break. The Wildcats are a solid defensive team but they don't rely on forcing turnovers. They force bad shots which helps fuel their fast break.