KANSAS vs. KENTUCKY
Most Important Matchup: Given the NBA talent that will take the floor in New Orleans on Monday night, perhaps the most compelling one-on-one matchup will be between two potential lottery picks: Terrence Jones vs. Thomas Robinson. Jones creates problems for opposing defenses with the incredible skill set he possesses for someone his size. Whether attacking off the dribble with a dynamic face-up game or backing down smaller defenders, Jones finds ways to score against opposing bigs. Robinson, however, cannot be considered either a slow-footed 7-footer or an undersized tweener. The Kansas forward’s most outstanding quality, meanwhile, is found on the offensive end, where he is arguably college basketball’s most prolific – and undoubtedly most consistent – low-post scorer. Even when not his dominant self, he can provide Kansas with enough scoring throughout the game to keep his team in it until he can take over in the fourth quarter. Robinson did this again Saturday night against Ohio State, when he finished with a quiet 19 points and eight rebounds. Given the exploits of Jones and Kentucky teammate Anthony Davis, however, it might take 40 minutes of excellence from Robinson for the Jayhawks to take their second title of the century back to Lawrence.
Strength: The success of its frontcourt will define the 2012 title game for Kansas. Robinson has been the Jayhawks’ team MVP all season, but the emergence of 7-foot center Jeff Withey raised the team's level of play. Withey was once simply a lengthy interior defender for a team that depended nearly exclusively on Robinson and point guard Tyshawn Taylor for offense, but has stepped into a crucial scoring role for the Jayhawks, who expect him to produce second-chance points. Junior Kevin Young adds another athletic body off the bench and has given Kansas an infusion of energy on both ends of the floor. He is an above-average rebounder and capable scorer in the paint, giving the Jayhawks a three-man rotation in the frontcourt. Kentucky is the rare team that matches up with a trio of bigs of its own.
Weakness: Depth. If Robinson finds himself in foul trouble, Kansas will find itself in deep trouble. Although Withey and Young have both proven to be above-average offensive players, neither is prepared to contribute substantially on that end of the floor against the Wildcats’ NBA front line. Defensively, Withey has already seen a lean, athletic post player in North Carolina’s John Henson, who most closely resembles Anthony Davis. It is Kentucky’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist who might represent the most unique challenge for Kansas. Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson are incredibly important in defending the dynamic Wildcats and will prove difficult to replace, as the next man up would be three-point specialist Conner Teahan.
Intangibles: Experience. Unlike Kentucky, the Jayhawks are a team made up almost entirely of juniors, with the only exceptions guards Teahan and Taylor, who are seniors. Starting with Robinson, the leadership on this Kansas team is really unlike most teams in this new era of college basketball. If the Jayhawks can hang with the speedy, athletic Wildcats for three quarters of the game, they will have three- and four-year starters on the court making plays in crunch time. If the game comes down to execution in the final minute, look for Kansas to be more comfortable running its stuff.
Kansas Will Win If: the Jayhawks avoid letting Kentucky beat them in transition. It is imperative that point guard Tyshawn Taylor makes sound decisions with the basketball in his hands. The senior has been woeful shooting the ball in the tournament, going 0-for-20 in five games from beyond the arc. He must continue to be an efficient distributor and focus on making others better instead of finding his shot. If he dishes seven-to-10 assists and keeps the turnovers to a minimum, his team appears in good shape to be the Wildcats’ stiffest challenge of the season.
Strength: Balance. Kentucky is a stellar shot-blocking unit that gives its opponents fits with the length it showcases in its talented frontcourt. Where the team truly establishes itself, however, is with its chameleon-like quality of tailoring its offensive style to whatever the individual game dictates. In Saturday’s game against Louisville, the Wildcats were forced to slow the tempo and make crisp passes while breaking the press. It led to easy looks at the basket and an eight-point win, but the team netted only 69 points. Against Indiana, it scored 102. Kentucky has proven it can win at any pace of play.
Weakness: The team lacks the one, truly distinguishable weakness every other team in the country seems to have. If anything, the Wildcats lack the experience in the backcourt Kansas will feature with Tyshawn Taylor. At times, point guard Marquis Teague has shown the propensity to turn the ball over, but teams rarely exploit it. In the frontcourt, Terrence Jones and Darius Miller bring calming veteran influences and Anthony Davis and Marcus Kidd-Gilchrist have played like anything but freshmen this season.
Intangibles: Coach John Calipari is without a national championship. The closest he came was in 2008 with a Memphis team led by then-freshman Derrick Rose. The result? A heartbreaking loss to Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks team. Thus far in his career, Calipari has developed a reputation as one of the finest assemblers of talent in the game. Unfortunately for Kentucky, his teams have also found ways to lose big games instead of winning them. If Calipari is to win Monday, his one-and-done players will have to succeed in the team concept – a task that's been the downfall of his other star-studded teams.
Kentucky Will Win If: it controls the boards. Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones and company cannot allow Thomas Robinson to operate freely inside. The Wildcats frontcourt must force the Jayhawks’ Player of the Year candidate to create for himself and eliminate second-chance opportunities. Foul trouble could go a long way in determining the game’s outcome. If Kentucky can relegate Robinson to the bench and keep Withey from putting up double-digit rebound totals, the Wildcats could win handily. Big Blue, however, needs to keep Anthony Davis on the floor Monday night.
Most consider Anthony Davis the nation's best player. Those who do not most frequently heap that praise on the broad shoulders of Thomas Robinson. Whichever player establishes himself as the true National Player of the Year will lead his team to victory. Toward the end of this battle between two of the nation’s premier offensive heavyweights, the Wildcats’ freshmen will find it harder to respond to the championship-game pressure than the veteran Jayhawks, who are determined to make Self a champion twice over the ring-less Calipari. Kansas, though, has played from behind frequently in the postseason. The Jayhawks must avoid another slow start if they stand a chance to knock off what many perceive to be the most talented team in the country. If they can execute in the halfcourt, turn Kentucky over and take advantage of opportunities in the open floor, Taylor, Johnson and Robinson can power Kansas to a win. And Robinson hits the game-winner in a high-scoring, back-and-forth contest.