There’s one game left to decide a national championship, as Kentucky and Kansas get set to tip it off in the Big Easy tonight (9:12 PM ET, CBS). You know we can run the evaluations of each team’s personnel and how they matchup—and we’ll get to that in a moment, but if a sporting event can ever be best captured by going to The Godfather for inspiration, TheSportsNotebook is all for it, and that’s where our discussion of the 2012 NCAA final has to begin.
I’m annoyed I’m not the first person to think of this analogy, but grateful that Dave Kindred, a Kentucky-based columnist, writing for Grantland.com, did. Prior to Saturday’s national semi-finals, Kindred wrote that John Calipari was on a mission straight out of Mario Puzo—“ Cal beat Indiana. Now he has to beat Louisville. That would settle all the ‘family business.'”
Kudos to Kindred for coming up with the best way of pointing out that Kentucky has beaten its two biggest rivals along the way to Monday night. But he missed the obvious point that would have crowned it all. It has nothing to do with Kentucky per se, but Calipari himself. The head coach has never won a national championship, but in a previous stop at Memphis he came within a few ticks of doing so. His team had a nine-point lead with two minutes to go in the 2008 NCAA final, let it slip away and lost a crusher in overtime. The opponent? Kansas. The coach? Bill Self. And the venue? New Orleans. Could revenge be made any more complete than by Calipari beating Self?
So let’s build on Kindred’s analogy and see Self in the role of Carlo Rizzi (if you’re one of the five people left in America who haven’t seen the movie, just scroll down to the subhead. I can’t give background on the entire plot). Self is sitting by his phone dialing a number when he turns to see Calipari enter the room, the “look of death”, that Puzo attributed to Michael Corleone, on his face. In the roles of Hagen and Rocco, are Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who immediately flank out. Self goes sick as he hears Calipari’s voice—“You have to answer for 2008 Bill.”
“John, I’m innocent, I swear on my eight straight Big 12 titles.”
“Ah, that little farce you played with Mario Challmes back in ’08, did you think that would fool a Calipari?” At which point Calipari takes a seat. “Indiana’s dead. So is Louisville.” The weight of it all hits Self and he begins to weep uncontrollably. “Tonight I settle all family business Bill, so don’t tell me you’re innocent.”
This concludes our Monday morning movie tangent. Now let’s talk hoops and see if underdog Self and Kansas have a better chance of standing up to Kentucky than Carlo Rizzi did battling Clemenza’s garrote.
HOW REALISTIC ARE THE UPSET POSSIBILITIES?
The individual personnel battle to watch for tonight is going to be Kentucky’s Davis and Kansas’ Thomas Robinson, both of whom occupy the low post. Not only are both excellent players and candidates for the Player of the Year Award that will be announced to the TV audience at halftime, but the contrast in their styles make this even more intriguing. Davis is athletic and quick, and his smooth turn-around jumpers were unstoppable on Saturday against Louisville. His shotblocking has been his calling card all year, and even if he doesn’t have a big night offensively, Davis’ mere presence near the basket impacts the game significantly. Robinson’s also got a nice turn-around, and while he lacks Davis’ shotblocking skill and complete athleticism, he’s a lot stronger. If the officials allow a physical game in the post, it’s easy to see Robinson pushing Davis off his spot throughout the night.
If the game were just about Davis and Robinson, this would be an even match. But this is the only area on the floor where Kansas can go straight-up with Kentucky. While Jayhawk guard Tyshawn Taylor is an excellent player and a good three-point shooter—capable of the kind of hot night behind the arc that an underdog team needs—the Wildcats run playmaker Marquis Teague and shooter Doron Lamb. On the frontcourt, even if Davis only impacts the game with his defensive presence, Calipari can rely on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist—a top five NBA draft pick in his own right—along with Terrence Jones, an underrated rebounder with a nice little jumper from the 10-12 foot range. How Kansas’ 7-footer Jeff Withey can handle himself against these more talented opponents, will go a long way toward deciding Kansas’ upset hopes.
Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that Kansas needs everyone outside Robinson and Taylor to play beyond themselves tonight. The good news for Self is that his supporting pieces are off to a good start in that regard. Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson played very good basketball in Saturday’s win over Ohio State and such things do have a way of carrying over on a short turnaround game like the national final. Let’s say Releford and Johnson again combine for 28, and that Kidd-Gilchrist again struggles. Then we’ve got a ballgame on our hands.
The problem with this scenario is not that it’s unrealistic, but even given all that, it just ensures the game will be close. Withey still has to play better than he did against Ohio State. Lamb would need to be cold from long range. If that happens, then Self will break Calipari’s heart again. But that’s two different levels of players going above/below their normal performances.
Author Damon Runyon once wrote—“The race does not always go to the swiftest, nor the fight to the strongest—but that’s the way to bet it.” Calipari settles all family business tonight, for himself and Kentucky, and cuts down the nets.