It's a huge week on the sports calendar: the opening of the Major League Baseball season, final countdown to the seemingly unending NHL playoffs and the week of professional golf's biggest tradition, the Masters. But that's all later in the week. It all starts off with the final game in the NCAA Final Four in both men's and women's basketball.
And we couldn't have a more magical matchup on the men's side with college basketball's two most dominant hardwood programs of all time, Kentucky and Kansas, going against one another in a storybook championship final for the ages. There are as many compelling story lines in this clash of college basketball titans as the combined championships and Final Four appearances between these storied national programs.
Between them, the state universities of Kentucky and Kansas have 10 national championships (seven for Kentucky and three for Kansas) and 29 Final Four appearances (with the Wildcats of the Commonwealth of Kentucky one up on the team from the Sunflower State, 15-14). That should be enough right there to make this one of the games of the year this season in college basketball. But these two schools have much more in common that you might think.
To begin with, let's go right to the obvious:: the two schools represent states that begin with the 11th letter in the alphabet, the letter "K," which their plentiful and fiercely loyal fans largely refer to by the two-letter monikers KU (for Kansas) and in its transposed form, UK (for Kentucky). Kentucky is the winningest college basketball program of all-time with 2,089 victories. The Jayhawks are No. 2 on that list with a grand total of 2,070 wins, 32 of those coming this season.
Here are some more striking likenesses between these two national powers of the college basketball world: Both schools sport blue as their dominant school color (Kentucky's colors are blue trimmed in white; the Kansas colors are blue and crimson). Number of NCAA Tournament No. 1 seeds: Kentucky 11, Kansas 10 (they were tied before this season). Conference championships: Kansas 55, Kentucky 51; consensus All-Americans: Kansas 27, Kentucky 24; NCAA Tournament appearances: Kentucky 52, Kansas 41; NCAA Tournament victories: Kentucky 110 (first all-time), Kansas 93 (fifth best all-time).
Kentucky comes into Monday night's national championship game as the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament, having gotten to the final game with tournament victories over Western Kentucky, Iowa State out of the Big 12, Indiana in the Sweet 16, another Big 12 school, Baylor (for the South Regional championship), and Louisville in the national semifinals on Saturday. The Wildcats average margin of victory in their five wins was just under 13 points and an advantage in every major team statistical category except steals.
Kansas' road to the Final Four included successive wins over Detroit, Purdue, North Carolina State and then No. 1 seed North Carolina (for the Midwest Regional championship) and Ohio State, which like Kansas was a No. 2 seed in the tournament. Unlike Kentucky, however, the Jayhawks have had to come from behind in all five of their tournament wins. That will not be a good formula to follow in Monday's championship final, and KU coach Bill Self knows it.
Self described Saturday's thrilling come-from-behind win over Ohio State as a classic "tale of two halves. They dominated us the first half," he said, "(then) the light came on and we were much more aggressive in the second half.
About Monday night's opponent for college basketball's big prize, Self said: "Kentucky had to play for 40 minutes (Saturday), too. The thing about it is, they're terrific. Our second half performance (Saturday), if we could play both halves, it's still good enough to get beat. We got to play a lot better than that playing a terrific team," he said.
Like their Saturday night foe, the Buckeyes of Ohio State, the Jayhawks and Wildcats have already met once earlier this season. Unlike against Ohio State, however, Kansas suffered its first loss of the season against Kentucky, a 10-point defeat at New York's Madison Square Garden in November. You can argue that this Kansas team is much better at this stage of the season than it was back in November. The problem is, you can make the same argument for Kentucky. Although playing with three freshman in its starting five, the Wildcats held the No. 1 spot in the national rankings for 10 weeks in the 2011-12 season.
Monday's championship game will also feature the two players considered to be the best in college basketball this season in Kentucky 6-10 freshman Anthony Davis and Kansas 6-10 junior forward Thomas Robinson.
The all-time series between the Big Blue of Kansas and the Big Blue of Kentucky favors the Wildcats by a wide 20-6 margin. The two teams have only met twice before in the NCAA Tournament, with each team winning a game (Kentucky in overtime in 1999 and Kansas in 2007). This is the first time the Wildcats and Jayhawks have played for the national championship.
If you are yearning for some more intriguing facts that link these two legendary basketball programs, consider these: Both head coaches (Bill Self and John Calipari of Kentucky) coached at Kansas under former Jayhawk head coach Larry Brown. Calipari was an assistant at Kansas from 1982-85, succeeded by Self for the 1985-86 season. The two coaches were on the opposing sidelines in the 2007 national championship, won by Kansas in overtime over Memphis.
While Kansas' first coach, James Naismith, the only basketball coach with a losing record in the school's long history, invented the game, Kentucky is considered the place where the college sport was popularized. The legendary coach Adolph Rupp is the name most closely associated with Kentucky basketball in the school's storied history. Before moving to Kentucky in the mid-1920s, Rupp, who was born in Halstead, Kan., played basketball at the University of Kansas, from 1919-23, under legendary KU coach Phog Allen. Allen Fieldhouse at Kansas and Rupp Arena at Kentucky were named after these two great college basketball coaches.
These two great basketball programs are virtually joined at the hip, making for a monumental matchup in the 2011-12 NCAA Tournament Men's Basketball Championship. Will Kentucky finish off its storybook season and claim the school's eighth national championship, the most of any college basketball program? Or will this be another season like 1988, when Danny (Manning) and the Miracles went toe to toe with heavily favored and Big Eight conference rival Oklahoma and pulled off the improbable upset?
In my view, the game will go one of two ways, and neither one favors Kansas, my alma mater. The way I see it, there is no way the Jayhawks are going to win this game big over the other Big Blue team. Kentucky, on the other hand, is very capable of running off and hiding from Kansas. If this scenario occurs, believe me, this young Wildcat basketball team is good enough defensively that the Jayhawks are not going to be able to fall behind by double digits and come back at the end to win. Kansas is highly capable, though, of keeping Kentucky within its sights and the game close enough to keep it interesting and in doubt until the bitter end.
There is no quit in this Kansas team. They've proved that throughout this improbable season, and Kentucky will find that out Monday night. In the end, though, the team from the Bluegrass State will prevail over the overachieving group from the Sunflower State in a contest that will be much closer than many predict: Kentucky 75, Kansas 68.
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