The Big Day Has Finally Arrived
Tonight is finally the night when Kentucky fans get the chance to see if a season of dominance will result in that eighth NCAA championship they so desperately crave. It’s the day when we see when one of the most talented, most exciting groups of freshmen ever assembled are capable of finishing off an NCAA Tournament by lifting a trophy.
It’s still a question because it’s never been done. The last team with this many freshmen to make the championship game – the famous Michigan Fab Five – didn’t win a title. Of course, they also didn’t win a title as sophomores, so maybe it wasn’t just because they were freshmen.
Truthfully, the idea that the Fab Five were the only freshman oriented team to make it this far is largely a myth. It’s just that almost all of their important parts by the end of that first year were freshmen.
A team that featured a large number of freshmen won the NCAA Championship LAST YEAR. This Kentucky team reminds me of a better version of last year’s UConn team. Freshmen Jeremy Lamb, Roscoe Smith and Tyler Olander started alongside sophomore Alex Oriaki and junior Kemba Walker for the Huskies. Freshmen Neils Griffey and Shabazz Napier were the primary subs. Sound familiar?
That Connecticut team got its leadership from an upperclassman in Walker. In a sense, so does this Kentucky team, since senior Darius Miller seems to be the team’s heart. The difference is that this Kentucky team plays a much more cohesive brand of basketball than that Huskies team did. Connecticut won the title more through the force of Walker’s will than through any sort of team concept. I think that became clear as that same group of Huskies, sans Walker, struggled to get of their own way all year this time around.
The other part of the question about Kentucky’s push for the national championship involves head coach John Calipari. Does he NEED this title? Does he need it to validate “his system?” Does he need it to validate his coaching career? Does he need it to exorcise the demons of the 2008 National Championship Game against these Kansas uniforms (not the same players) and Kansas coach Bill Self?
Say want you want about Cal, but the way he has handled these questions this week is one of the most refreshing things about the Cal experience at Kentucky.
On the question of HIS “one and done” system, he reminded the media that he didn’t make the rule, the players didn’t make the rule, that he doesn’t like the rule and that something needs to be done about the rule. Then he said that he was just recruiting the best players possible in light of the rule.
This is the question I am getting the most sick of. It would be one thing if Kentucky were the only one recruiting the players currently on its roster – if Cal were taking a flyer on a group of super talented outliers that nobody else would touch. It doesn’t get mentioned often, but of Kentucky’s top seven players, five received offers from other schools in this year’s Final Four – Anthony Davis by THREE of them. Kansas was a finalist for Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Marquis Teague. Only Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kyle Wiltjer (who is likely to return to Kentucky) didn’t have offers from other Final Four schools and Kidd-Gilchrist had offers from Georgetown, Memphis and Villanova. Wiltjer had to choose between such renegade programs as Gonzaga, Wake Forest, Cal and Texas. The horror. (Just for fun, here is Darius Miller’s recruiting profile. I was a little surprised I found it. Seems like he got recruited before the internet.)
As to whether or not Cal’s coaching legacy depends on winning this or some future championship game, Cal gave what has become sort of a mantra for him. “It’s not about me,” he told a press conference on Sunday. “It’s about them.” And he nodded toward the five players with him on the podium.
Calipari seems if not unique at least different enough among college basketball coaches. As much as anybody in the profession he doesn’t seem to let the idea of a National Title define what he does. He’s a competitive guy – you don’t get to this level if you’re not – so I am certain the win tonight would mean a great deal to him, and while media and both opposing and some Kentucky fans may need to see him cut down a net in April to say he is a great college basketball coach (30-win seasons be damned!!), he honestly doesn’t seem to NEED one personally. Don’t confuse not needing one with not wanting one, however.
As for that 2008 Kansas title game, Cal said simply “I’m fine with that game,” although he did admit to never having watched the tape.
Who wins tonight? Honestly, I’m more nervous about this game than any other throughout the tournament, maybe because it’s the last one. A much different Kentucky team beat a much different Kansas Team back in November in a game that I don’t think tells us anything about what happens tonight.
I think the Anthony Davis-Terrence Jones versus Thomas Robinson-Jeff Withey battle inside ends up being a push. So it comes down to the guys on the outside. After trying to decide since January who was the better player, Davis or Robinson (seems like the award givers favor Davis), the national championship will likely be decided more by the guys around them.
A Big Thank You
Thanks to everyone who read and shared yesterday’s thoughts about the post-semifinal riots. Yesterday became the biggest WEEK in the blog’s history. It was more than a little humbling as I watched throughout the day.
I guess everybody hates stupid rioting.
Ohio State’s ridiculous meltdown on Saturday kept my Kenpom bracket from winning the Bracket Challenge it was entered in with the Elitist Jerk Sports Information Collective AND from potentially winning money. But the Kenpom bracket did dominate my bracketing experiment, and it wasn’t really close.
The next best is a tie between taking the top seeds and my personal choices for who would win. Even my homer choice bracket outpaced the RPI, which is a pretty poor showing for an objective measurement too.
NewsRadio 630 WLAP in Lexington is now in the middle off 12 hours of pre-game coverage for tonight’s National Championship game. Coverage will run until about 2 am with post game shows. If Kentucky wins tomorrow, I’ll be on from 7-9 am to talk about the Cats’ eighth national title. If the unthinkable happens and the Cats lose, we’re all sleeping in and licking our wounds.
This is Awesome