"Kentucky is on another level. Everyone else is playing for second place."
A statement I've heard too often this year.
It's been a forgone conclusion all season. Kentucky, a team filled with freshmen and sophomores, and considered the most talented team in college basketball, will play for and win a National Championship in April.
Led by National Player of the Year, Anthony Davis, the Wildcats cruised through the season compiling a 37-2 overall record backed up by an undefeated regular season conference record.
On the flip side, Kansas coach Bill Self put together his least talented team during his tenure in Lawrence.
A team many expected to fumble away the school's eight straight Big-12 Championships. A team that many believed may not make it into the tournament. And a team that many thought may not make it past the first round of the tournament.
Yet, here they are in the National Championship matched up with a Kentucky team who has all but won the title.
Today's Sportscenter poll asked the nation who they thought would win tonight's game. 73% said Kentucky.
So why even play the game?
I'll tell you why. Because if Kentucky steps on the court expecting to win this game, then they are in for a big surprise.
Kentucky's a team full of first round NBA draft picks and a National Championship just improves their draft positions. It's been they're goal all season and now that the goal is in sight, they better not look past tonight's game if they expect the plan to unfold the way they think it will. With such a young team, that's not an unthinkable possibility.
The Jayhawks flew under the radar all season and all throughout the tournament. Maybe they have overachieved to this point, but that's going to stop them now.
They aren't as talented or flashy as Kentucky, but they dominate games in the most important areas. On defense and on the boards.
Kansas stifled opponents in the tournament forcing 11.8 turnovers per game, pulling in 137 defensive rebounds, swatting 6.2 shots every game, and holding opponents to 35% field goal percentage including 28% on 3-point shots.
At 41%, Kansas shoots less than stellar from the field and even worse from beyond the arc at 24% during the tournament, but they also grab just over 11 offensive rebounds per game, increasing their possessions and helping keep games close.
The two teams already matched up early in the season and Kansas played neck and neck with the Wildcats during the first half before slowly dwindling in the second leading to a 10 point win for Kentucky.
Anthony Davis played extraordinary, connected on six of his eight shots, scored 14 points, pulled in 6 rebounds, and blocked 7 Kansas shots.
The Big-12 player of the year, Thomas Robinson struggled to score at 5-for-12 shooting, but grabbed 12 rebounds in the process.
Although both teams were just beginning to learn how to play with one another, KU has vastly improved since then. With less go-to players, everybody is going to have to play lights out if they expect to pull off the upset.
It all starts with Thomas Robinson.
T-Rob has to put up points. He will be factor glass-eating no doubt, but he is going to have to compliment that with efficient scoring. His footwork on the block, plus his post moves, and 15-foot jump shot capability combine to make that a very likely possibility.
Kansas' second leading scorer, Tyshawn Taylor, needs to prime himself for this game. He can NOT turn the ball over. He HAS to make jump shots as well. His ability to penetrate and make tough lay-ins makes Taylor a unique guard, but with Anthony Davis in the middle, he will not be able to rely on that ability alone to win this game.
The biggest difference between the KU and Kentucky game from earlier in the season was that Elijah Johnson had not yet found his role with the team. He scored only 8 points on 3-11 shooting in the prior meeting. During the tournament, Johnson averages 13.4 points per game on 54% shooting and connecting on 43% of his 3-point shots. He has to keep up his pace for the Jayhawks to win.
The most important player on the court tonight for Kansas will be Jeff Withey. He needs to continue blocking shots. He's done so during the tournament, blocking 27 shots in the five games, but he's going to have to have a hand full more plus make life difficult for Davis in the middle if KU expects to keep the game close.
Finally, Kansas as a team needs to play flawless defense. Travis Releford is going to have to continue playing stifling perimeter defense on the likes of Doron Lamb and Michael Kidd-Gilchrest. Tyshawn will have to do the same, picking off some passes for fast break opportunities, and the Bigs need to force Kentucky out of the middle and into some perimeter shots in addition to strong defensive rebounding. If they do that, it will limit Kentucky's possessions, keeping them in the game.
That's a lot of ifs, but Kansas has done just enough to win games all season and all tournament so why would they stop now?