March Madness officially comes to a close this evening as the Wildcats of Kentucky match up against the Kansas Jayhawks tipping off at 9:23 EST on CBS. Kentucky (37-2), the #1 overall seed in this year’s tournament is looking to win their first NCAA Tournament since the 1998 season back when Tubby Smith was running the show. Kansas (32-6) and the #2 seed in the Midwest region look to knock off Kentucky and win their first National Championship since their 2008 victory in San Antonio over Memphis and the now Kentucky head coach John Calipari.
How did we get here, to the end of the road in New Orleans, Louisiana? For each team this is the 6th and final game of this year’s tournament. Since losing in the Southeastern Conference Tournament Championship game Kentucky has gone on to beat Western Kentucky, Iowa State, Indiana, Baylor and most recently Louisville on Saturday; all in convincing fashion. The eight point win Saturday was the closest margin of victory for the Wildcats (69-61), while the March 23rd win over Indiana may have been the most entertaining game of the tournament thus far (102-90). While Kentucky has been running through opponents, Kansas has had a bit of a tougher time navigating their way to New Orleans. Since losing to Baylor in the Big 12 Conference Semi-finals 81-72, Kansas has won their five NCAA tournament games either by double figures or by just one basket. A win, is a win, is a win at this time of year and now the fact that the Jayhawks played three games within 3 points this month is a moot point. Kansas crushed Detroit 65-50 in their opening game of the Madness, then went on to defeat Purdue 63-60, a surging NC State 60-57, and then an ailing North Carolina team 80-67 (a team dubbed #Wristwatch2012 in reference to the injuries to John Henson and point guard Kendall Marshall). Most recently they beat Ohio State in a thrilling comeback 64-62 late Saturday night in a game that will take many years for fans in the Buckeye State to get over.
What to watch for tonight? This should be an up-tempo game as both teams really like to get out there and run. Kansas touts 6’10” junior power forward Thomas Robinson who was a player of the year candidate up until the moment the awards were won by UK’s Anthony Davis, and also a dynamic guard in Tyshawn Taylor who is averaging over 17 points a game this season. Taylor has been struggling a bit over the course of this tournament, but he did come up with a clutch 22 point performance in the win over UNC, so Kansas will need another star effort from their 6’3” senior guard from Hoboken, New Jersey. Jeff Withey, the Jayhawks center, will have his hands full with Anthony Davis and he must hold his own if the Jayhawk faithful want to be celebrating on Bourbon Street and on the streets of Lawrence, Kansas later this evening.
On the Kentucky front they really just have to keep it rolling and continue with the momentum that they’ve picked up over this tournament. The team is treating this trip to the Big Easy as a business trip and you can tell by their lack of celebration thus far that they still have one more thing to accomplish before they consider this season a success. While fans back in Lexington may have caused a bit of trouble Saturday night with a mini-riot, Calipari’s boys are not distracted by the sights and sounds around them. On the court look for Anthony Davis to continue his monster season and check out the influence that he has on the defensive end of the court. His mere presence intimidates opponents and he affects almost every shot taken inside the 3 point line just by being on the court. Offensively, the Wildcats are hoping for more production from Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist than what they provided on Saturday night in the win over Louisville. The two combined for 15 points and just one assist, while Michael Kidd-Gilchrist played only 23 minutes due to foul trouble. Kentucky will need a better effort from those two.
I’m sad to see March Madness end this year and am hoping for a classic game tonight. These teams did match up extremely early in the year, back in November, and the Wildcats held on for a 75-65 win on a neutral court at Madison Square Garden in New York City. I expect more of the same tonight. Kentucky and Kansas are the two winningest schools in college basketball history; Kentucky with 2,089 wins all-time and Kansas ranking second with 2,070. Tonight one of these teams will add another win to their records, cutting down the nets, adding another banner to their arena, and getting a year with the gold plated Wooden National Championship trophy. Whoever wins also gets the one thing that can never be taken away: the right to be called Champions!