The University of Kentucky has been able to defend its No. 1 overall seed against different styles, different sizes, and different opponents. Last night against Louisville, they were a bit flustered by the Cardinals’ match-up zone, but prevailed because of superior size and skill — despite being out-rebounded, 37-32. Kansas, meanwhile, seemingly came out of nowhere early in the season, gained momentum throughout the campaign and has put an exclamation point on its tournament performance by defeating the University of North Carolina and the Ohio State University in the Midwest Regional Final and national semifinal, respectively, to reach the opportunity to square off with Kentucky for the national title tomorrow night just after 9 p.m.
The Wildcats and Jayhawks, the two winningest programs in the history of college basketball, have only met twice in the tournament since 1985– an 88-76 Kansas win in the 2007 second round and a 92-88 Kentucky win, also in the 1999 second round. Kentucky leads the all-time series, 20-6, including a 75-65 win on Nov. 15. Their season-long averages are quite similar: Kansas averaged 73.9 points per game and allowed 61.6, while Kentucky scored 77.6 points per game and allowed 60.6.
Kansas has the offensive pedigree and defensive ability to match Kentucky like no other opponent has this tournament — or this season, for that matter. Louisville may has provided a blueprint for Kansas to beat the Wildcats, especially if the Jayhawks’ triangle-and-two zone can reek havoc and if Kentucky’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist ends up in foul trouble, which he did against the Cardinals.
Self, who was named the Naismith Men’s College Basketball Coach of the Year, can unleash a big man (Thomas Robinson) that can give the Wildcats’ all-world freshman Anthony Davis the most difficult night of his career. Robinson, after all, scored 19 points in his battle with Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger last night. It’s very possible that Davis, Robinson and Sullinger will be in the NBA next season along with a several others playing in the title tilt.
Like many other opponents of Kentucky this season, Kansas must execute perfectly and convert on a large number of their shots. They made 44.6 percent of their shots against Ohio State, but were down 34-25 at halftime. Overcoming a similar halftime deficit against Kentucky might not be as feasible. They out-rebounded Ohio State, 41-30, something they must repeat against Kentucky.
Kentucky, meanwhile, just needs to keep doing what it’s been doing all season. They simply have overcome every challenge and swatted away every opponent. Yes, they lost to Indiana in December and Vanderbilt two weeks ago (in the SEC tournament final played across the street from the Superdome), but it seems that the magic has never left the Wildcats’ paws. Kansas may provide the most valiant challenge to Kentucky’s ascension to basketball immortality, but in the end, it appears the Wildcats will capture its first championship since 1998 and John Calipari his first title.
Final predicted score: Kentucky 75, Kansas 71.
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