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Kentucky heavily favored

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Dick Jerardi
April 2, 2012
— Kansas coach Bill Self was perhaps 20 minutes removed from seeing his team secure a spot in tonight’s national championship game when he crystallized the critical issue.

This Kentucky team, he said, is better than the Memphis team that outplayed his best team for 39 minutes in 2008. Left unsaid is that this Kansas team isn’t anywhere near as good as the 2008 national champions.


So, how exactly does Kansas beat Kentucky? It probably doesn’t.


“They got guys that can make plays you can’t coach,” Self said.


The coaches get the money. Or at least the money we know about. They get the spotlight because the players are transient, especially these days. But it always helps to have the best players on your side.


That was Kentucky in November. It will be Kentucky in April.


These teams actually played on Nov. 15 at Madison Square Garden. Kentucky won, 75-65. You might think that portends nothing, but who thought Kentucky’s 69-62 win over Louisville on Dec. 31 was predictive until Kentucky beat Louisville, 69-61, on Saturday.


Kansas shot just 33.9 percent that night at the Garden while Kentucky shot 51 percent and was 7-for-15 from the arc. Kentucky had 13 blocks, seven by freshman phenom Anthony Davis.


Kansas made the score respectable because point guard Tyshawn Taylor got to the free throw line 17 times and made 15 while the Wildcats were just 16 of 29 from the line. The teams combined for 33 turnovers, 19 by Kentucky.


Could Kansas win? Yes. Is it likely to win? No.


Kentucky coach John Calipari is going to play this game to win. He won’t play not to lose like Ohio State coach Thad Matta did Saturday night against Kansas. When Matta sat his scoring star Deshaun Thomas with three fouls early in the second half, he allowed his team to give up the big lead it had earned. When he sat Thomas with four fouls, he let the game slip away. Cal won’t be afraid. He will let his players play.


“We’re not changing how we’re playing, we’re playing to win,” Calipari said. “I kept telling them to keep attacking.”


Which is why Kentucky had eight dunks (that felt like 18) against Louisville. The Wildcats play without fear.


Calipari said he has never watched the tape of his Memphis team’s loss to Kansas.


“That tape was flung out the door of the bus as we were going to the plane,” he said.


Derrick Rose and his Memphis teammates had that game won and simply gave it away with late turnovers, bad fouls, missed free throws and a foul they tried to take but did not before Mario Chalmers’ legendary shot.


“It’s just that everything that could have went wrong went wrong and everything they had to do right they did,” Calipari said. “Stars and the moon lined up, all of a sudden we went to overtime.”


If Calipari ever looked back, he isn’t saying. If he is concerned about his legacy, he is hiding it.


“If my legacy is decided on one game, it won’t be me deciding it,” Calipari said. “It will be everybody else. I’m just trying to coach a game and do the best job I can for these kids.”


These kids include three starters who are freshmen and two who are sophomores, with a senior coming off the bench and a freshman seventh man. Every last one of them could play in the NBA someday. Davis is a franchise changer.


“It’s hard to come and play here, it’s not for everybody,” Calipari said. “Every game we play, it’s someone’s Super Bowl. You’re not playing in front of an empty seat all year. There’s no place to hide, no crack to go down into. It’s not for everybody.”


These players seem to thrive on it. The bigger the moment, the better they play.


When Louisville came from 13 points down to tie the game 49-49, what happened? The Cardinals missed their next nine shots. That was not an accident.


“Anytime you don’t know whether a team is better offensively or defensively, you know you got a great basketball team,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said of Kentucky.


Kansas presents a challenge because it really defends and no team in America is better at getting good shots in the post. You just wonder how Kansas will score enough to win.


Back in the day, Self followed Calipari to Kansas in a low-level job in the coaching office. On any list of the 10 most successful coaches in America today, they are on it.


Self has his title. Calipari is heavily favored to get his with players that could be about themselves, but are not.


“He gets them to buy into ‘we’ instead of ’me’,” Self said “They’re unselfish, they’re tough, they’re physical and they guard.”


The young UMass version of Calipari screamed at the officials every possession because he didn’t know any better. Over time, he realized it is about the players. So, he gets them, coaches them and, yes, yells at them, leaving the officials mostly alone.


This is Coach Cal’s 20th year as a college head coach. He has had seven teams at three schools win 30 or more games. The only thing he hasn’t done is win the last game.


With that, UK-KU, the school with the most wins (2,089) and most NCAA wins (110) against the school with the second most wins (2,070) and 93 NCAA wins, tradition against tradition.


This time, Kentucky has the better players and the better team. The Wildcats were supposed to win this tournament when it began. And there is nothing that has happened in the last three weeks that has changed that thought.



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