Kentucky was the most dominant regular-season team we've seen in years, and therefore they were favored to win the 2012 NCAA tournament. But teams that have been told by the selection committee, in effect, "We think you should win this tournament," don't have a good track record of late. The Wildcats are the first overall No. 1 seed to win the national championship since Florida did it in 2007. John Calipari's team did something much more impressive and much more difficult than earning the label "best team in the country." They lived up to that label in a single-elimination tournament.
(1) Kentucky 67, (2) Kansas 59 [66 possessions]
Think back to the Rick Pitino-era Kentucky teams and, yes, to the team that Tubby Smith took to the national championship in 1998, a season which netted UK's last title before this one. Those teams all functioned as units, and "Kentucky" was an emblem that denoted a will and effectiveness that couldn't be deflected under tournament pressure. The Wildcats recorded a 20-2 record in the four tournaments between 1995 and 1998. The last of those teams was regarded as a bunch of lovable underdogs because they were "just" a No. 2 seed. They had to mount a heroic comeback from 17 down against Duke in that year's Elite Eight.
Those teams all had talent, of course, but they didn't exactly flood ensuing NBA lotteries with their personnel. (Antoine Walker was the sixth pick in 1996, the highest draft position attained by any UK player from that era.) So it's the highest compliment when I say the group that I saw win the 2012 national championship reminds me of those past Kentucky teams -- only more talented. The Cats this year conveyed to viewers and opponents alike a sense that their fund of basketball ability as a team was more or less inexhaustible. That's a remarkable sense for any team to convey, particularly one that, in effect, featured a six-player rotation.
The degree to which Kansas was an underdog in this game was, inevitably, overstated, but even so they were indeed an underdog, and they talked like one. Anthony Davis is a great player, an exasperated Thomas Robinson told the press in New Orleans before the game, but he's not Superman. The pressure is all on them, Bill Self told his team in the locker room before tip-off.
One way for an underdog to prevail is to strike first. That's not the way it played out this time, however, as the Jayhawks trailed by as many as 18 in the first half. I never doubted that KU would make a second half run, and they did, but falling behind Kentucky is not like falling behind Purdue. Kansas doing its best on offense against the shot-blocking and defensive rebounding of Davis couldn't quite make up enough ground against a Kentucky offense that was being held back by Calipari.
Kansas lost the war, but they did win a couple battles, starting with the defense that Jeff Withey played on Davis. If Jay Bilas had been calling this game he would have pointed out that Withey's defense started "early" on each possession, and that KU's seven-footer refused to give Davis the position and the openings to which he's accustomed. There were no lobs to the rim for Davis to throw down in this game, as Calipari's star went just 1-of-10 from the field. In fact Withey clearly succeeded in frustrating Davis to the point where the freshman actually tried going under the rim to use the tin as protection against the shot-blocker -- just as opposing players have tried to do against Davis all year. In the portions of his evening where he didn't have to contend with Withey as much or at all, Davis thrived, per usual. He recorded 16 rebounds, six blocks, and five assists. But he simply couldn't score from the field. Fortunately for UK fans, Doron Lamb (22 points fueled by 3-of-6 shooting on his threes), Marquis Teague (14 points, including two big threes), and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (11 points) were able to pick up that slack.
Calipari clearly told his team to go into a shell in the game's later stages, and indeed afterward he said his players were pleading with him to let them loose. He might want to consider that suggestion next time. No team's going to look particularly relaxed and confident, I guess, after they've been told to milk the clock in the national championship game in the Superdome. But even within that subset of teams, Kentucky looked really tight playing in that situation.
KU reeled off a 19-8 run to pull within five with a little more than a minute remaining. On Kentucky's ensuing possession they very nearly turned the ball over not once but twice. Coming out of a timeout after Davis made a free throw to put the Cats up six, Tyshawn Taylor made a beautiful backdoor cut along the baseline and looked to have a clear path to a layup that would bring the Jayhawks within four. But Kidd-Gilchrist, who'd been burned on the cut, made an outstanding recovery and blocked Taylor's shot right at the tin. After that block, which bids fair to be remembered as MKG's signature play as a college player, the free throw contest commenced in earnest, and the outcome was never in doubt. The t-shirt that Charles Barkley spotted on a UK fan in the crowd -- "We're Just Better" -- turned out to be both succinct and prescient.
Davis upped his already strong defensive rebounding to get something close to 32 percent of KU's misses during his minutes. That actually paled in comparison to what Robinson was simultaneously doing for the Jayhawks on his defensive glass (personally pulling down 37 percent of UK's misses during his time on the floor), but victory does have its privileges. Davis was named this Final Four's Most Outstanding Player.
Kentucky and Kansas combined to attempt 93 two-point shots, and they made just 34. Based on the last two national championship games, if you're looking for a characteristic that distinguishes April-caliber teams in advance, you may want to consider two-point field-goal defense. (You may also want to consider simply whether the team in question has a player named "Lamb.")
Assuming Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, or all of the above enter this summer's NBA draft, this team will be distinguished as marking the first instance where a one-and-done player has closed the deal and won it all. Kevin Love came close, and Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Daequan Cook, and, especially, Derrick Rose came closer still (in real time if not in the NCAA's hindsight), but for all the fuss we make over one-and-dones not one has ever worn the ball cap and t-shirt after the final game. Until now.
At this point it's fair to ask whether Kentucky bringing Calipari on board in 2009 was perhaps the best single coaching hire we've seen in recent years. That hiring started out messily, granted, when it came to light that Calipari had left a Memphis program that was being investigated by the NCAA and would eventually have to vacate its appearance in the 2008 Final Four. But the on-court results of that hire in just three seasons have been remarkable even by Kentucky's illustrious standards.
Calipari's success to date at UK may seem inevitable in retrospect, and, yes, he was pretty fair at Memphis too. But bear in mind that upon his arrival in Lexington he found a roster that, while it did have Patrick Patterson, had just gone to the NIT. The new coach was also given a recruiting class that, again on the day of his arrival, had Daniel Orton and Jon Hood, period. From that starting point he's taken his team to the Elite Eight in each of his first three seasons, and won the national championship as the NCAA tournament overall No. 1 seed in year 3.
His abilities as a recruiter have long been obvious, but what casual fans are at last coming to understand is that Calipari also gets his insanely talented teams to play a cohesive and savvy brand of basketball, often with an accent on excellent defense. In six NCAA tournament games Calipari's youthful band of NBA-track stars played like an experienced and highly disciplined mid-major, committing turnovers on just 16 percent of their possessions and never fouling. The team with the most talent played the smartest brand of basketball. Both halves of that statement are directly attributable to John Calipari.
It's traditional with Calipari-era Kentucky teams to ask whether this or that sensational freshman is going to stay for another year. As long as Calipari stays, however, I'm not going to get too caught up in that question.
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John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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