NCAA Championship Recap

A college basketball journey that began on an aircraft carrier in San Diego last November ended in New Orleans last night as Kentucky defeated Kansas 67-59 to win their first national championship since 1998 and their fourth in the modern era of the NCAA Tournament, which started in 1976. TheSportsNotebook looks back on Monday night’s finale…

John Calipari didn’t hesitate when asked by CBS’ Jim Nantz what this win was about. “Defense.” And the numbers back Calipari up. Kansas, like Louisville on Saturday, was held to sub-40 percent shooting from the floor.  Their interior defense was spectacular, as Kansas seemed unable to get an entry pass to the post with defensive hands swatting the ball away.

Kansas’ Thomas Robinson had a night that was a microcosm of his team. No one can dispute the effort of a player who hits the glass to the tune of 17 rebounds, and he also scored 18 points. But he took 17 shots from the floor and only made 6. Robinson played hard, but that’s just a little too inefficient on the offensive end. The Jayhawks as a team deserve a lot of credit for how hard they battled. There was never a point when Kentucky appeared anything less than in control—yes, I know Kansas had their runs, but if you were a neutral fan, was there any point in which you really thought the Jayhawks might win? But this game had the potential to get ugly, and I was waiting  for it to become a rehash of 2009 when a superior North Carolina team got out on Michigan State and just destroyed the Spartans. That could’ve happened to Kansas last night, but didn’t—it spoke well of them as a team and from an entertainment perspective at least  gave us a reason to keep watching.

What impresses me the most about this Kentucky team is just how well these freshman kids already seem to understand the concept of subordinating their individual games to a team concept. They talked of defense and rebounding in postgame interviews, and Anthony Davis, the Outstanding Player of the Final Four, positively gushed about his teammates. A cynic might say that the kids have really mastered the art of media manipulation, but if you are such a cynic I’d invite you to watch the game again—or any of Kentucky’s big games this season. This group played unselfishly and did the dirty work of guarding people and hitting the glass with relish all season long. Their postgame words were nice, but they weren’t necessary—the actions on the floor had already spoken loudly enough.

John Calipari graciously insisted that the win wasn’t about him, in his fight to win his first national title on his fourth Final Four try  (He brought UMass in 1996 and Memphis in 2008 in addition to last year with UK). In the postgame, CBS’ Seth Davis noted that he could protest all he wanted, this still was about him. He’s on the board with a ring and while that never shields you from criticism or is a guarantee of job security, it’s still a huge threshold to cross.

For our historical irony of the day, the 67-59 final is the same score Marquette beat North Carolina by in the 1977 championship game. That was also a case of a coach—Al McGuire in this case—seen as a rogue by many and finally cutting down the nets. Calipari won’t ride off into the sunset like Al did after that win in the old Atlanta Omni. It seems safe to say the Kentucky mentor will keep knocking on the door. But it’s hard to imagine he’ll ever have a group that combines high-level talent with an extraordinary team spirit like the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats did.