I have to say, I'm about five hundred times more excited for tonight's NCAA tournament final than I was last year. Although there was the plucky underdog story of Butler, yada yada, the fact remains that they were an 8-seed without an impact pro on their roster, and UConn was a 3-seed that had finished ninth in their own conference while pretty much only playing well in tournaments (winning the Maui Invitational, the Big East tournament, and the Big Dance), and they had only two potential impact pros of their own (Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb).
This year we get a better matchup. The role of plucky underdog will be played this time by...Kansas? As in the school where Dr. Naismith first brought the game? Allen Fieldhouse and Rock Chalk? Underdogs? Yes, the second-winningest program of all time and Big 12 regular season champion is a decided underdog in this game, because they are facing John Calipari's most recent rendition of just-stopping-by lottery picks at Kentucky, the dominant SEC regular season champs for the winningest program in NCAA annals, and the team that practically everyone outside of Lawrence has already anointed as tonight's winner.
And obviously, they are good. Three of the top four players, and five of the top seven, will be wearing Kentucky white tonight. But Kansas is good, too. The talent level is such that tonight's game will feature three of Chad Ford's top four NBA prospects (Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Thomas Robinson), in addition to another surefire lottery pick (Terrence Jones), five more of Ford's top 60 (Marquis Teague, Tyshawn Taylor, Doron Lamb, Elijah Johnson, and Jeff Withey), and a tenth player who has a pretty decent chance of hearing his name called in June (Darius Miller). Last year there were three top-100 players in the national championship game, and two of them (Walker and Shelvin Mack) were short point guards.
Anyway, I'm here tonight to rip off one of my favorite columnists (Bill Simmons) and cover the game with a running diary of the proceedings. I will clarify in advance that I am pulling for the Jayhawks tonight, since as a Duke fan I have a long-standing antagonistic relationship with Kentucky (although I will win my office pool with a Wildcats victory). Without further ado, let's get started with the pre-game show.
9:00 - After an introduction video with various players from both teams, tonight's broadcast team (Jim Nantz, Clark Kellogg, and Steve Kerr) immediately goes to the early-season matchup between UK and KU. The major difference from then? Jeff Withey wasn't yet a factor, and the Wildcat freshmen were still getting their feet wet. This should be a different game.
9:05 - Everybody in the studio crew is dressed pretty sensibly tonight, even Kenny Smith in his multi-windowpane light gray suit. Still surprised that Greg Anthony has yet to call out Chuck or Kenny for not doing their homework before the tournament.
9:11 - I love Bill Self, and the speech is good enough, but I absolutely hate the graphic that purports to track the decibels but is really just random. And we're going to skip any more updates until tip-off. Although I do like that Anthony has gone balls to the wall and predicted a Kansas upset. ROOOOCK CHAAAAAALK JAAAAAAYHAAAAAWK KAAAAAAY UUUUUUUU.
9:21: Starting lineups: Robinson, Taylor, Withey, Johnson, and Releford for the Jayhawks; Davis, Jones, Kidd-Gilchrist, Teague, and Lamb for the Wildcats. No surprises.
9:23: Can Releford guard Kidd-Gilchrist? I think that might be a key tonight. He shut down Harrison Barnes, but Barnes is soft, especially minus Kendall Marshall. Releford is an excellent defender, but also foul-prone, and since Kidd-Gilchrist is much more of a driver than a shooter, that could make for an interesting plotline
9:24: Does Doron Lamb ever sweat? He looks as if nothing has ever bothered him, and he looks that way when he plays, too. I know it's pre-game introductions, but I feel like you could tell Lamb that his house was on fire and his demeanor wouldn't change a bit.
20:00: Withey wins the tip. As has been pointed out by statheads on ESPN, Withey actually blocked a higher percentage of shots this year than Davis, although Davis had more total. In watching them, I feel like Davis gets a lot more blocks coming from the weak side (which makes sense, he's quicker), but Withey has learned how to hold position against his man and get more blocks one-on-one.
19:47 - Taylor with a tough drive to open the scoring. In order to have a puncher's chance, KU will need Taylor to be able to break down Teague or whoever is primarily responsible for guarding him. The tough thing for the Jayhawks is that since their perimeter players are all roughly the same size, and Releford (the biggest at 6'6") is clearly the weakest offensive option, Coach Cal can stick his best perimeter defender on Taylor (the best offensive option of the three) and make it even more difficult for the Jayhawks to initiate their offense. We could see a lot of Kidd-Gilchrist on Taylor tonight.
19:15 - Withey gets a big block on Jones, but has to swat it out of bounds. Giving the ball back to Kentucky can be very dangerous. By the way, Withey is now three blocks away from a new tournament record, and we're going to start tracking him and Davis in that category head-to-head. Withey 1, Davis 0.
18:54 - After a Jones air ball three-point attempt, Releford goes baseline, but misses the lay-up because he's affected by Jones. Good hustle play. If Jones plans on playing that hard for an entire basketball game, watch out.
18:48 - Ouch. Kidd-Gilchrist got absolutely mauled on a fast-break drive by Johnson and Withey in succession, and landed very awkwardly. But he's tough enough to stay in and make one of his free throws. This is why he's already passed Barnes and might be the second pick in the draft. I don't think there's any basketball player who wouldn't love to play with K-G. All he cares about is winning.
18:30 - Robinson gets tied up by Davis a bit going to the hole, and then Jones recovers to block the shot. I'm telling you, Jones is looking like he's fully invested tonight. That could make his matchup with Robinson somewhat epic, given that they may be as evenly matched as any two power forwards in college basketball.
18:02 - Jones (a lefty) scores on a nice righty jump hook as he continues to make me look smart. Johnson answers with a bomb from the top of the key off of a Taylor feed. Kansas may need to make more threes than they typically do to hang around tonight.
16:55 - Robinson just did his best Austin Rivers impression from the wing, but as with most of his travels in this tournament, the refs swallow their whistles. That's followed by a Teague blow-by to the basket. Yikes. You have to stay in front of him and turn him into a jump shooter. Releford misses a prayer, and then Robinson commits a foul in the backcourt, at which Kerr hypothesizes that he might be TOO excited right now.
16:05 - Uh oh. First Jones is playing hard consistently, and now Teague appears to be feeling it, stroking a jumper off of a pass from Davis. Even if it's tied at 7 right now (after Robinson answers with a lay-up), those are both ominous signs for Kansas. Anthony Davis is looking uncomfortable shooting in the post against Withey, whose presence just forced an awkward attempt and a miss.
15:52 - Hey, there's the Tyshawn Taylor we know and love!* He just had the ball stolen by Davis. Meanwhile, Robinson has come out of the game for Kevin Young. I don't think that anything speaks as well to the coaching job that Self has done this year as the fact that the only significant addition to the Jayhawks this year was a transfer from Loyola freaking Marymount (a third-rate team in a second-rate conference) who didn't even play organized basketball last year (he was taking classes at a junior college), and barely averaged double figures when he was playing at LMU. Calipari immediately goes to his bench, giving Jones a rest with Robinson on the bench and subbing Darius Miller. Smart call, as the broadcast team acknowledges. Jones is the only Wildcat who can really handle Robinson one-on-one, so it makes sense to conserve him a little here.
*Disclaimer: may not apply to Kansas fans.
15:28 - Ruh roh, more trouble signs. Kidd-Gilchrist dunks in transition, then Davis blocks Taylor's return offering at the basket (Davis 1, Withey 1), which leads to a Lamb layup, all in about fifteen seconds. Yes, Kansas needs to be able to run with Kentucky, but a big part of that is getting back in transition and not allowing dunks and layups.
14:18 - Finally, a break in the action! Withey absolutely buried Davis on the block and caught the ball deep, which leads to Young getting fouledby Miller. Time for our first TV timeout, and I am absolutely skipping through all of the awful ads. Why are March Madness commercials consistently terrible? About the only enjoyable bit is noting that two thirds or more of the NCAA's hypocritical self-serving ads were filmed at Pepperdine. I would say that I hope we got some money out of it, but this is the NCAA we're talking about. They probably forgot to send it because they were too busy congratulating themselves over upholding the virtues of amateurism.
14:11 - Jones makes a great cut and slams it home, assisted by Teague. Looks like Kentucky's two most volatile players are here to play tonight.
13:15 - Connor Teahan, now in the game for Kansas, curls around a screen, and NICE PASS! Teahan just dumped to Withey, who shows some surprising agility in weaving through both Davis and Jones to finish at the rim and get fouled. 17-12 after the three-point play.
12:53 - At the other end Withey blocks Lamb on a layup attempt, sending the ball about nine rows deep (Withey 2, Davis 1), then Lamb loses it out of bounds. Kansas is very fortunate that those extra possessions on the Withey blocks have looked ugly for Kentucky.
12:39 - Davis blocks Robinson at the rim (Davis 2, Withey 2). Baskets around the goal are going to be hard to come by tonight.
12:22 - Well, that's one way of beating the shot-blockers. Taylor threads one on the pick-and-roll to Robinson for a dunk, and the Jayhawks are back within five at 19-14.
10:36 - Kentucky is now on the verge of breaking this open. Can Kansas really pull their second-half miracle act against the best team in the country? Self just called timeout after a Kidd-Gilchrist lay-up made it 23-14, and now K-G is guarding Taylor as he brings the ball up the floor. His length will force Taylor (if he can't get by his man) to make the initial pass of the offense to someone about 25-30 feet from the hoop, making post entries much harder.
9:57 - Ay yi yi. That was a rare total defensive breakdown for Kansas. Teague got lost off the inbounds pass and made a reverse around Withey to help kill the jolt of energy the Jayhawks just got from a Releford three pointer. 25-17, Wildcats.
8:46 - It's too bad that Withey's offensive moves are glacially slow, because he's still getting the ball deep in the post and scoring to make it 27-19. I can't help but look at Withey and think of Eric Chenowith, Chris Burgess, and Cherokee Parks, all seven-footish white SoCal boys who were kind of soft. But Withey seems to be stronger than them, even if the guy he's posting up is built like a tie rack.
8:01 - This time it's Robinson who catches the ball with both feet in the paint, but Davis wipes it out from the weak side (Davis 3, Withey 2). I like where the Kansas big men are catching the ball a lot. They could make some hay if they get the weakside defender in the air and wrap the ball around him to a cutter. Time will tell.
7:08 - Kerr is talking about the various iterations of zone defense for Kansas, and wondering if they'll try one out, with the score now 31-19. I don't think that's a good idea. It worked against Carolina because they had at least one non-scorer on the floor at all times, but that doesn't apply here. With the way that all of Kentucky's top six are capable of exploding for 25-30 points, the triangle-and-two would probably mean that either Miller or Jones (or both) would get some open looks from the perimeter, and when Wiltjer is in the game, he can bury those too. Not a great idea.
5:23 - Oof. Kentucky has a 21-9 rebounding edge? I have a hunch that Self will focus on that one in the locker room in a few minutes.
2:37 - CBS just showed Davis' stat line. He has yet to score a point, but with 9 boards, 4 assists, and those 3 blocks, he has been the best player on the floor so far. It's a good thing for Kansas that he's having trouble scoring on Withey, because he seems to be the only guy having any difficulty scoring at the moment.
1:34 - Someone on the Wildcats (I didn't see who) violates the cardinal rule of "never throw a chest pass through the key." It winds up right in Withey's hands, and at the other end Davis draws his second foul on a Robinson offensive rebound, although T-Rob promptly misses the front end of the one-and-one. Hmmmm.
0:00 - After a Kidd-Gilchrist missed three, Taylor spins down the lane and almost dunks just before the buzzer to make it 41-27. Unlike Releford's lay-up at the intermission on Saturday, this one is more relief than adrenaline surge for the Jayhawks. "Oh, thank God. We can hang around." They look like they're about on the edge of feeling overwhelmed.
Halftime - Chuck, Kenny, Seth, and Greg all wax lyrical on Kentucky, which Chuck has been doing every chance the others give him a chance to say something throughout this tournament. Since I got home a little late after the game started, we're skipping Clark's presidential interview. I've seen two of those, and I'm pretty certain that the third will be just as fawning and flattering. No thanks. And so, coming out of the locker room, Self tells Tracy Wolfson that his team's transition defense must get better. Fact. The Wildcats are not going to miss many open dunks and layups, and they had at least five in the first half.
19:27 - Robinson hits Jones hard for foul number two on a late defensive rotation, but then Teague throws a baseline pass to the ref, somehow thinking he could put it around a seven-footer whose foot was firmly on the baseline.
19:09 - Davis gets his fourth block on a Taylor layup attempt, but Robinson scores over Jones on the possession. Tyshawn Taylor has been starting for four years. How has he not learned a floater to counteract the shot-blockers at this point? Really? Either that or the Kansas guards need to find their teammates sooner when they do get into the lane.
18:19 - And that is NOT how you mount a comeback. Withey just clanged a lob from Johnson off the back of the rim. You cannot give away the easy ones against a team like this. Kansas has now missed SEVEN dunks or layups that were not blocked. The mere presence of Davis accounts for a lot of that, but still, the Jayhawks can't keep giving points away.
17:11 - Kansas just stopped about five point-blank attempts by the Wildcats, but Johnson misses a three, and so it's still 41-30. The Jayhawks' defense is already showing signs that they're in tournament second half mode, but the offense has not caught up yet. Kerr is saying that Kansas needs to be taking more mid-range jump shots, and you know what? He's right. Johnson is a streaky long-range shooter, and we all know how Taylor is 0-20 in the tournament, and Releford is not much of a shooter either. They should see if they can get some fifteen-footers instead of launching ill-advised threes or challenging Davis at the rim.
16:49 - Speaking of Releford, he just picked up his third foul, meaning that Teahan has to come in and guard Kidd-Gilchrist. The refs stop the game so that the kids with the mops can wipe up the puddle of drool at Kidd-Gilchrist's feet.
16:31 - Davis comes flying in to block a Robinson jumper (Davis 5, Withey 2), before collecting the deflection himself and shuttling it off to Teague (who misses at the other end). After some steaks and protein shakes, I would be less than surprised if Davis is first-team All-NBA Defense in his second year in the league. He has tremendous timing and leaping ability, and unlike, say, Dwight Howard, he understands the value of keeping the ball in bounds to create transition opportunities. You won't see him posturing and flexing after a block (not that he has anything to flex).
15:30 - Davis is finally on the board! Withey made a lazy block out attempt on him and picked up his second foul. Davis, after canning a free throw, now has 1 point, 13 rebounds (!!!), 4 assists, and 5 blocks. Whoa. 44-30, Wildcats. Do the Jayhawks have a run in them?
14:47 - Not if this keeps up, they don't. Robinson bricks a tip-dunk on a Johnson miss, then at the other end is lazy corraling a rebound (he only used one hand), which gets poked out by Davis for a Jones dunk, and that four-point swing makes it 46-30. Jim Nantz is frantically scanning his list of terrible puns right now.
13:52 - Kansas is making their layups! In the last sequence, Taylor missed a layup and may have gotten fouled, but Johnson was there for the follow. At the other end, Johnson knocks the ball away from Davis and runs up the floor to dunk a lead pass from Robinson, which prompts Calipari to call timeout. Johnson has been a key third scoring option for Kansas when they've played well. Maybe he can use these four quick and easy points to get rolling.
12:27 - Davis gets yet another block, this time on Releford (Davis 6, Withey 2), but Robinson gets the rebound and dunks to make it a ten-point game, 46-36. Also, Robinson drew a third foul on Jones when he got outstanding position on him right in front of the rim and Taylor recognized it quickly enough to zip him a pass from halfcourt. Bears watching. Robinson, meanwhile, has put together a double-double (12 and 12) and is gradually asserting himself more. He might be able to do more shortly, because he'll either be guarded by Jones and his three fouls or a much smaller Kidd-Gilchrist or Wiltjer.
11:51 - The crew is wondering about Kansas going to a zone again, just before Darius Miller knocks home a tough bank shot. Taylor responds at the other end and may have gotten fouled again, but there's no whistle. Either his acting is as bad as Nicholas Cage's right now, or he's getting hit most of the time he goes to the hole.
11:12 - Coming out of the under-12 TV timeout, CBS shows us that Kentucky is 3-14 so far in the second half and has turned the ball over six times. Call me crazy, but this sounds a lot like what happened to Purdue, Carolina, and Ohio State. Interesting. Also, Withey blocked Teague on the last possession before the break (Davis 6, Withey 3), and has now tied the tournament record for blocks.
10:41 - Does anyone like this stupid mobile overhead camera angle? Anyone? Bueller? It works fine for football because it can show you the video game angle, but in basketball it is just disorienting. I feel like it's going to give me vertigo.
10:00 - Ruh roh again! Self has to call time after Lamb drains back-to-back threes around another Taylor drive that ends in neither a basket nor a foul, and it's quickly a sixteen-point spread again. It may not be time to start the bus yet, but they should at least go out and check the fluids. Lamb, by the way, now has 20 points.
9:10 - Robinson is not willing to roll over and die yet. He just blew by Davis from the top of the key to make an up-and-under, then grabs a rebound and takes off before thinking twice about going 1-on-5.
8:20 - Hey! Johnson, missing in action for the past five and a half minutes of game time, drains a step-back three with a hand in his face to cut the margin to twelve, 56-44.
7:52 - As good as Davis has been in every other facet of the game, Withey has just shut his scoring down, and he's basically done it without help. Davis is 0-8. This makes me wonder about Withey's pro prospects. He's holding his own defensively against the top pick in this year's draft, and while you can time some of his offensive moves with a sundial, he's not a terrible athlete, and displays pretty good timing on defense. He'd have to go in at least the second round, right? Although I did compare him to Eric Chenowith and Chris Burgess.
6:36 - Yeesh. Kansas is just giving away points. Releford airmails a three, and then Robinson misses a lay-in, and it's Kentucky ball, up 56-44.
6:02 - Kevin Young fouls Jones on a baseline reverse, but to be fair, he's giving up about 60 pounds. Self may want to think about putting Withey back in there now if he wants to hang around here.
4:51 - STOP THE PRESSES! Taylor (who shot 43% from downtown in the regular season) finally hit a three, and now is 1-21 in the tournament. Too bad that it only cuts the deficit to twelve, 59-47.
4:17 - Kansas just cleared a major mental hurdle, as the color guys pointed out. After a Withey block on Davis (Davis 6, Withey 4), Taylor goes right to the rim for an and-one against Lamb, and hits the freebie to cut the lead to single digits for the first time since it was 28-19. Now it's 59-50, Kentucky.
3:52 - Withey affects another shot (this time by Miller), and at the other end Jones picks up his fourth foul jostling with Robinson, who comes out of the TV timeout and promptly drills two free throws. We have a seven-point ballgame! Davis, clearly the MVP of the game so far, has now compiled a 5/15/5/6/3 statline. Nice.
3:40 - We may want to hold those NBA prognostications for Withey just yet. Every time Davis catches the ball at the top of the key, Withey waves his arms and looks something like a newly fledged albatross struggling to get airborne.
3:22 - Johnson just drove to the rim with his head down and ended up flying out of bounds with nowhere to go with the ball, so he throws it away in the general direction of Taylor at midcourt. Do the Jayhawks still think they can challenge Davis at the rim?
2:48 - Teague knocks down a giant three to push the margin back to ten, 62-52. While I understand there are noises about his going pro right now, he could probably stay another year and be in a much better position coming out as a sophomore. He's a poor man's version of his brother, who was dropping 20 a game as a sophomore and became a mid-first round pick. He'll be no better than the third point guard off the board, after Damian Lillard, Kendall Marshall, and potentially Tony Wroten and C. J. McCollum.
2:35 - Johnson answers! It's a seven-point game again, at 62-55.
1:37 - Oh boy! Teague misses another three, and down at the other end Robinson barely misses his shot but gets fouled by Kidd-Gilchrist. Robinson, a 66% shooter from the line, makes both, and all of a sudden we have a two-possession game at 62-57. Don't call it a comeback!
54.6 - But actually, don't call it a comeback. Taylor goes baseline and beats Kidd-Gilchrist, but Kidd-Gilchrist recovers and blocks Taylor's reverse attempt! That was a great play by Taylor, but an even better one by Kidd-Gilchrist. That's exactly why he's a top-three pick waiting to happen. Taylor then turns it over to give Kentucky the ball back.
23.5 - I think we can close the door on any serious comeback attempt now. Johnson was about to take a three near the corner to try and cut the lead in half when Davis came flying out of the key and obliterated Johnson's view. So Johnson dropped the ball and drained a step-back after Davis flew by, but got called for traveling on the initial jump. It's entirely fitting that Davis, who has owned this game defensively throughout, should make the play that seals the win for Kentucky. I can take solace in my 30 bucks and the fact that a win for Kentucky is a loss for the corporate hypocrisy that is the NCAA (as my buddy Phil pointed out).
17.5 - Lamb is actually breaking a sweat as he makes a pair of free throws to put it away at 67-59.
0.0 - Davis corrals a Johnson air ball, and that will be it! I am glad, at least, that the best team in the country actually won this year, and that the talent level of the tournament was much higher than the past couple of years (certainly than last year - ugh). Sadly, this year's tournament lacked a lot of drama (all of which happened on Friday of the first weekend when Missouri and Duke were upset), and there were only two teams (Xavier and Ohio) from non-power conferences in the Sweet 16. Despite the improved talent level, there were very few of the beautiful games that we crave in March. But there is always next year, and hopefully we won't have to watch Calipari cut down the nets again with an entirely new team. Regardless, "One Shining Moment" is always awesome.