These Cats Had One Life… But It Was a Good One

3 04 2012

#2 Kansas 59, #1 Kentucky 67 – Men’s Basketball Championship

Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, LA


The Kentucky Wildcats defeated the Kansas Jayhawks, 67-59, bringing the program its eighth national championship. They have the second most all-time, only trailing UCLA (11 titles).

This physical game didn’t come easy for the Wildcats or Coach John Calipari, who surely didn’t enjoy how the end of the game started. 

With under two minutes to go in a game in which his team controlled throughout, Calipari began having a sense of déjà vu.

In 2008, his Memphis Tigers held a comfortable six-point lead with 1:39 to go. In 2012, his Kentucky Wildcats had a five-point lead with 1:37 to go.

After Anthony Davis missed his first of two free throws at the 1:11 mark, Calipari surely had eerie flashbacks to four years ago when his team finished 1-5 from the line, eventually leading to a Bill Self-led Kansas victory in overtime.

This time, however, the Wildcats went on to shoot 5-6 from the line, and with a little help from the Jayhawks and their turnovers in crunch time, Calipari had a slightly different ending to his season.

He became a champion. Finally.

Instead of feeling joy and exhilaration, Calipari probably feels relieved due to the impossible standards placed on him by Kentucky. This university brought him in for one reason and one reason only: give Kentucky something they haven’t obtained since 1998.

On his third try, he successfully brought basketball glory back to the Big Blue Nation. The question now is how long the alumni and fan base will give him until they demand another title.

No matter the common perception regarding this team filled with young hot-shots, this group of men showed a team filled with one-and-dones can play team ball on both sides of the court.

Number of players in each category:

6+ Rebs
3+ Asts
2+ Blks
50% FG

From setting the championship record with 11 blocks on the night to simply playing unselfish basketball, this was a total team effort. It is no accident that Kentucky had an equal distribution of their statistics from the very start. When any Jayhawk attempted to pound the paint, every Wildcat on the floor assisted in stopping the penetration. This just bolstered the fact that Kentucky opponents ranked last in the country shooting inside the arc. This team that only lost twice the entire season had too much of simply everything for Kansas to handle.

Anthony Davis reminded the nation why he will become the third Calipari player in the past five years to become the first overall pick in the NBA Draft with his commanding six-point game on 1-10 shooting. Yes, those numbers are correct.

This is exactly why he will be the top pick. The Men’s Final Four Most Outstanding Player did not just control the paint – he mastered the paint. The six blocks he recorded, giving him the NCAA freshman block record (186), doesn’t provide a suitable representation for his play down low on the defensive end of the court.

Thomas Robinson and Jeff Whithey combined to shoot 8-25 on the night. Anthony Davis made Robinson’s 18-point, 17-rebound performance a quiet 18 and 17. How is that possible? I didn’t think it was before Monday… but Davis proved otherwise. He showcased how he influences the game in a way that can’t be captured with numbers (even though 16 rebounds, five assists, three steals and six blocks is enough proof for most).

Take Kansas’s last of their three crucial turnovers for example. When Elijah Johnson received the ball behind the three-point line with a six-point deficit and 25 seconds to go, he hoped to put up a shot that would keep his team’s chances of winning alive. Davis turned this into false hope. He bounded to Johnson and skied high, forcing Johnson to not shoot, not pass but to simply come back down to earth with the ball still in his hands. As easy as it is to put the blame on Johnson and his awful play in crunch time, Davis should be given credit for his effect on this travel.

Even though Davis and his right-hand unibrow had the largest impact on the night, his teammates shouldn’t be forgotten:

  • Scoring 20 of his points in the first 30 minutes and hitting two clutch free throws with 17.5 seconds left, Doron Lamb could not be contained by one of the best defenses all season long. He had a game-high 22 points along with three 3-pointers, two of which came back-to-back that extended Kentucky’s lead from 10 to 16 midway through the second half. Without Lamb’s consistent shooting, Calipari would not have been able to spread out Kansas’s defense as well as he did.
  • Terrence Jones brought physicality to the court all tournament long, and the championship game was no exception. He collected a rebound, block and jumper in the first 1:45 of the game. The tone he set early on helped give the Wildcats a lead they would never give up for the last 36 minutes of the game. He has many similarities – for better and for worse – with Josh Smith from the Atlanta Hawks and will most likely have a similar impact for his future NBA team.
  • Prospected to be drafted soon after Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist played a huge role in bringing the Wildcats a comfortable 41-27 lead at the half. He scored all 11 of his points before halftime; however, he continued to make plays down the stretch, including one of, if not the, biggest play of the game. As Tyshawn Taylor continued to make his valiant effort toward bringing Kansas another comeback win, he drove baseline in what looked to be an easy reverse layup. Kidd-Gilchrist recovered and denied Taylor at the rim. Without this block, the deficit would have become only four points for the Jayhawks, and there could have been an even tighter ending.
  • Marquis Teague and Darius Miller might not have had the prettiest statistical lines, but they certainly helped bring Kentucky their coronation. Struggling early on in the season with the tempo, Teague showed his growth as a player by effectively handling the flow of the game very and playing in control – even if he missed nine of his 14 shots. Miller did what he has done all season long – provided veteran leadership. As the only senior and bench player to receive substantial playing time, Miller gave Kentucky just the kind of attitude toward all these young guns that the program needed.

The "Cats" got the best of the "Birds" Monday night.

Should Calipari’s success be looked down upon because of his apathy regarding his kid’s staying in school past their first year? Well, should basketball players be looked down upon for flopping?

In both instances, rules are not being broken. Calipari and floppers are taking advantage of the rules and regulations being presented to them.

The difference between Calipari’s coaching and flopping is that players leaving early seems to be the new approach to the game. The way collegiate basketball works is going through a transformation. Calipari is not going against the system – he is the system.

Whether or not Calipari’s coaching lives up to college basketball purists standards shouldn’t take away from his coaching ability. In fact, his way of doing things along with his consistent success (four Final Four appearances with three different schools) makes him an even more impressive coach.

With the outflow of his young players into the NBA year after year, Calipari has to deal with new squads that have new tendencies and skill-sets. Very few coaches have what it takes to move on the fly and adjust accordingly. Calipari is one of these men.

This year, he manufactured a team built for success. He went out and found 18-year-olds that he trusted to play major roles for his team, and they had to trust him right back. Calipari molded this team into a group of men that would soon be moving on to the NBA but would be willing to follow Calipari for the short time they spent playing basketball without an income. That is great coaching.

Why have I hardly mentioned the Kansas Jayhawks in this post? No, it is not because I go to Mizzou and love to see our biggest rival lose. (That only plays a minor role.)

This game was entirely about the Kentucky Wildcats – one of the top teams at the beginning of the year, the hot team throughout the season and the best team at the start of the tournament.

Since only three AP No. 1 ranked teams in the past 30 years had won it all before Monday night, the pressure laid on every Wildcat’s back, especially Calipari’s. They had 70,913 people waiting in person to see them bring the inevitable championship to Calipari’s résumé and put the cherry on top of one of the best team’s of this past decade.

They did just that.

This Kentucky team will soon be no more. Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, Jones, Lamb, Teague and Miller will most likely enter the NBA Draft, and John Calipari will entice more kids to his championship program with the thought of only taking half of the required prerequisite classes. What about that troubled sophomore english class? No more reading will be necessary. How about trigonometry? A calculator will suffice. He has his ways and his ways create success. Now, he can say his success translates into championship play.

Even though this team had a short time together, they won’t be forgotten.

They will be remembered for bringing Calipari his first of many championships. They will be remembered for epitomizing an era of one-year collegiate players. They will be remembered as a team that played all aspects of the game close to perfection.

They will be remembered as the 2012 NCAA Men’s Basketball Champions.

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