I, like many people, had Kentucky winning the NCAA tournament in my bracket. (Hell, if you were to fill out a bracket based on the “Most Popular” picks on Yahoo, you would too.) On the other hand, I did not see Kansas going to the Final Four. I mean, this is Kansas we’re talking about, the school that lost to Bucknell in ’05, Bradley in ’06, Northern Iowa in 2010 and Virginia Commonwealth last year. In theory, anyone who had Kansas in their Final Four should’ve known better.
That said, if you went against the trends and have already won your bracket with a UK-KU final, you’ve probably sweated a few bullets by now. This year’s Jayhawks squad has certainly looked ripe for the picking, with its none-too-impressive 65-50 win over 15th-seeded Detroit, followed by a three-point win over Purdue, another three-point win over NC State–an impressive 80-67 victory over UNC–and a two-point win over Ohio State in the Final Four. Suffice to say the Kansas program has made it this far by the skin of its collective teeth.
On the other hand, the top-ranked, top-seeded Kentucky Wildcats tore up the tournament as expected, with a 15-point win over Western Kentucky, a 16-point win over Iowa State and 12-point wins over solid Indiana and Baylor squads, before they hit a bit of a stumbling block in their in-state rivals, Louisville. Sure, they still won by eight, but that 69-point performance was by far their lowest-scoring effort since they last lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament. And though his team came up a bit short against his former employer, Rick Pitino seems to have written the book on how to beat Kentucky, one that I’m sure the ‘Hawks have been reading for the past two days. DE-FENSE! *stomp stomp* DE-FENSE!
Though Kansas has struggled offensively–outside of the regional final, that is–you can credit their defense for holding each tourney opponent to 67 points or fewer. And while they actually averaged 75 points per game on the season, they’ve shown the ability to hang around in close, low-scoring games before putting the hammer down and coming out on top. Case in point: coming into the Final Four, Ohio State had scored no less than 73 points in its four tournament wins, but the Jayhawks shaved 11 points off of that mark, holding perhaps the toughest two-seed in the tourney to their lowest total in more than a month. Now that’s execution, right there.
Against the high-flying Tar Heels, Kansas traded baskets throughout the first half before the defense kicked it up down the stretch, holding Carolina to 20 points in the second–and shutting them out completely in the final four minutes. Any doubts that this team, which went 16-2 in Big 12 play, could win the big postseason game were erased in the last two rounds.
Sure, Kentucky has a talent-laden team that could see its entire starting five taken in the first round of the NBA draft–many of them forgoing their sophomore seasons in the process–but Kansas has an experienced group of juniors and seniors with chips on their shoulders. These kids have lost to Nothern Iowa and VCU in years past; hell, they almost lost three times in this year’s tourney! On the other hand, senior backup Conner Teahan was there when they won it all in ’08. Some of these Kentucky kids might’ve seen that one on TV, if it wasn’t past their bedtimes.
If adversity builds character, then the Jayhawks have it in spades. And in a season where only the strong survive, this is the strongest team in the tournament, right here. If Kansas wins, they’ll probably win ugly, but that’s hardly unprecedented. After all, the final score of last year’s final was 53-41. So I’m taking the underdogs. My bracket’s been busted for weeks now, anyways…
FINAL SCORE: Kansas 65, Kentucky 63 on a last-second shot by Christian Laettner-lookalike Jeff Withey. (They even go to the same barber, but he has the slightly better haircut…)