It is Championship Day in the Bluegrass. That doesn’t mean the Kentucky Wildcats have this sewed up, but it sure is nice seeing them back in the title game.
Kentucky endured a spirited attack from their in-state rival Louisville on Saturday night, winning 69-61.
The buzz was off the charts for this game, but I found better energy in the air prior to Kentucky’s Elite Eight game against Baylor.
This has been a wonderful season by any measure, with Kentucky having been ranked No. 1 in the country since midway through the season, but if this talented squad of mostly underclassmen didn’t at least make the Final Four there would have been a sense of disappointment.
Not to worry, Kentucky dismantled Baylor from the opening bell on its way to an 82-70 victory.
Once the matchup with Louisville was set, there was nervous energy emanating from both Lexington and Louisville. This wasn’t the stage where these two wanted to play. Too much to lose.
The state of Kentucky ended up being like the parent of two brothers on rival teams – having to nervously watch them battle one another, rooting for and against both.
Something about it wasn’t that enjoyable to watch. I’d much prefer some random team for either to face, so I could have whole heartedly gotten behind either being victorious.
With a tip of the hat to Louisville for playing such inspired basketball – Kentucky now will face another familiar foe in Kansas for the national championship, at 9:23 ET.
Generally I’m OK with Kansas. It’s a great program, historic, and plays the game the way it should, clean and crisp. Allen Fieldhouse offers an amazing environment and the Jayhawk mascot is iconic.
That being said, the whole “Rock Chalk Jayhawk” thing needs to be silenced tonight.
This will be Calipari’s fourth Final Four appearance and second shot at a title. As an added plot twist, these two coaches met previously in this same game, with Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks beating Calipari’s Memphis Tigers for the 2008 NCAA championship.
Memphis had Kansas beat, up nine with just over two minutes remaining in the game, but lost in overtime.
As it turns out it would have been really painful had Memphis held on to win, since the NCAA vacated that entire Memphis season. It was bad enough removing the Final Four banner, imagine nullifying a championship.
This Kansas team isn’t as explosive as that 2008 squad, and the team Calipari has assembled at UK is more talented than the Memphis one led by reining NBA MVP, Derrick Rose.
It took Calipari five years and three NIT appearances before he got Memphis rolling. There was no lead in necessary at Kentucky.
Calipari was already a top-tier recruiter, but at UK he had the marquee brand to go with his spin, and immediately landed the number one overall recruit in John Wall, along with Demarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton – who all went to the NBA.
Coach Cal is a gaudy 101-14 in three seasons at Kentucky, and has advanced further each season, from Elite Eight, to Final Four, and now a berth in the national title game.
Each of these teams have been rebuilt mostly from scratch, and there is controversy around that. His system of relying on one-and-done players may not be in the best interest of college basketball, but he’s winning.
“Calipari gets a lot of credit for recruiting,” Self said. “But the thing that I think is sometimes lost is, he’s one of the very best coaches there is in the country.”
One of Calipari’s specialties is personality management. This is often more of a skill seen in the pros, where multiple all-stars must be kept happy in order for them to produce on the court.
Calipari, the former head coach of the New Jersey Nets, has consistently been able to bring in 5 star recruits to Kentucky, who all think they are the next LaBron James, and convinced them to buy into ‘WE’ instead of ‘ME.’
In return for this unselfishness Calipari gets them ready for the NBA as freshman and sophomores.
This current Kentucky team may have the No.1 and No. 2 overall picks in this year’s NBA draft.
The first will be Kentucky All-American Anthony Davis, who today won the Naismith Trophy for men’s college player of the year. It’s a distinct possibility that the second pick will be fellow freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
As a slight counterbalance to this, today Kansas coach Bill Self was voted Naismith Men’s College Basketball Coach of the Year.
Self knows all too well the daunting task his Jayhawks have before them tonight.
Kentucky and Kansas met on Nov. 15, when the Wildcats beat the Jayhawks 75-65.
Admittedly, the Jayhawks unanimous ballot All-American, Thomas Robinson, hadn’t found his potential yet, fouling out in frustration with 11 point in 27 minutes.
Problem for Kansas is Kentucky’s improvement arc is even greater.
The Wildcat faithful are salivating for a victory.
After Kentucky’s win over Louisville, hundreds of fans poured into the streets of downtown Lexington to celebrate.
For whatever reason UK students like to burn stuff when they win – similar to Maryland. I’ve never understood this, but numberous cars and old couches lit up Lexington’s skyline, resulting in road closures and two dozen arrests.
“The state of Kentucky is so connected to this program. It’s the commonwealth’s team,” coach John Calipari said. “They go overboard sometimes.”
Hundreds of officers will be out Monday night to keep order. Remember UK students haven’t stopped drinking bourbon since Friday. The majority obey the law, but burning stuff can sound like a good idea after a couple bottles of Jim Beam.
“I don’t want to go to that person’s house. They don’t have nowhere for me to sit,” said Kentucky forward Terrence Jones, referring to the burning couches. “That’s crazy!”
In 1998, the last time Kentucky won the national championship, 300 police officers in full riot gear lined the streets to keep the estimated 15,000 fans who gathered under control.
It’s fitting the game is being played in New Orleans at the Superdome, where redemption and vindication are themes. Hurricane Katrina ripped the roof off that gym, but faith and perseverance replaced it – and that was rewarded with the New Orleans Saints winning a Super Bowl.
The Superdome is where North Carolina won on a jumper by Michael Jordan against Georgetown; the Chicago Bears Super Bowl-shuffled all over the New England Patriots; it’s where Chris Webber and Michigan’s Fab Five called a timeout they didn’t have; where Adam Vinatieri kicked a field goal as time expired to give Tom Brady his first Super Bowl; and where Louisville native Muhammad Ali won his last fight in 1978.
If Calipari wins tonight it will be the ultimate vindication, and places a stamp of approval on his coaching style.
With the championship on the line only one thing needs to be said:
C – A – T – S.
CATS! – CATS! – CATS!
Let’s get this done Kentucky. That eighth banner sure would look sweet up in the rafters of Rupp Arena.