Bill Koch, National Columnist
This column is a bittersweet one for me to write.
It comes in advance of the final game of the 2011-12 college basketball season, a 9:21 p.m. tipoff between Kentucky and Kansas on Monday night that will determine this season’s national champion. One blue-clad fan base will have the run of Bourbon Street sometime before midnight, and the story line will be a terrific one no matter the outcome.
The Wildcats (37-2) are cast in the role of favorites, a collection of superstars who will leave the Superdome floor and be seen again in three months when they’re shaking hands with David Stern on June 28 at the NBA Draft. Kentucky’s youth would seem to be its only obstacle to overcome, simply because freshmen don’t tend to win at this level – only three have been named the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament since it began in 1939. Pervis Ellison emerged in 1986 as Louisville’s most clutch performer, but teammates Billy Thompson and Milt Wagner were AP All-Americans. Carmelo Anthony had capable upperclassmen sidekicks Hakim Warrick and Kueth Duany when Syracuse won it all in 2003. Even the Fab Five, the Michigan team who made it fashionable for first-year players to stop waiting their respective turns for playing time, left Ann Arbor without rings.
The daunting task of beating history will prove just as difficult for Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the rest of Kentucky’s current crop of one-and-done players. The Wildcats have been sensational throughout their five-game stroll through the field, their latest victory a 69-61 bloodbath against Bluegrass State rival Louisville. Kentucky held the Cardinals to 34.8 percent shooting, limited Louisville to just seven assists against 12 turnovers and overcame a subpar night at the foul line to book a place in the season’s final game. The Wildcats’ consistency and effectiveness is a tribute to John Calipari and his ability to coax such tremendous talent to do the little things required to be in position to win a championship.
The Jayhawks (32-6) are the perfect foil as the scrappy overachievers, a whole that’s better than the sum of its parts. The same can’t be said of the Kansas teams that fell to VCU in the Elite Eight last season and lost to Northern Iowa in the third round in 2010. Thomas Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson can all boast of doing something that first-round picks Xavier Henry, Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris never did – play in a Final Four.
Beating a team like Kentucky, however, is going to take more than grit and determination. Kansas won’t be able to focus its attention on one player – there won’t be another 5-for-19 stinker from Jared Sullinger or a 33.9 percent performance from the field like the one Ohio State produced while blowing a 13-point lead in a 64-62 loss to the Jayhawks on Saturday. Kansas won’t be able to go 3-for-11 from 3-point range and Taylor will finally be made to pay for his careless ways with the basketball. He finished with five more turnovers against the Buckeyes, making it an even 10 games in 38 this season where he’s turned the ball over five or more times.
What we’re about to see is the culmination of a sea change that began in 2006, when the NBA began excluding players who hadn’t finished a full year after high school by either playing in college or overseas. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh provided the most prominent professional example of the AAU culture that now dominates basketball at all levels, choosing to play with friends in a glamour city like Miami while pursuing a championship. High school players can only be expected to do the same, a model that Calipari has perfected since moving to Lexington in 2009. Look for him and his basketball prodigies to usher in a new era by finally cutting down the nets.
The pick – Kentucky
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