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The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

Five things to watch Monday night when Kansas and Kentucky battle for the national title

Ryan Greene
The Dagger

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Thomas Robinson, left, and Terrence Jones will once again lock horns on Monday night with a national title on the …

When Kansas and Kentucky met in Madison Square Garden back on Nov. 15, the Wildcats blew a tied game open early in the second half with a vicious 11-0 run.

During that stretch in a 75-65 Kentucky win, the Wildcats seized control from the Jayhawks, while getting their first glimpse against big-time competition of just how good they could be.

Now, heading into Monday's national championship game rematch in New Orleans, Kentucky carries itself with a distinct confidence and swagger, clearly knowing just how good it is. And a battle-hardened Kansas squad can't be broken so easily just five months later.

What does it mean?

It means that Monday night should be a classic.

The Wildcats enter the college basketball season's final game as a 6.5-point favorite in Las Vegas, though it appears to be almost a unanimous belief that the game should be close wire to wire.

As the lead-up to the game begins, here are five key things to watch Monday night, as Kansas looks for its second national title in five years while John Calipari searches for his first crown in a heavily-decorated coaching career.

1) Who can turn the paint into no man's land?

Against Louisville, Kentucky star freshman became the first player since 1988 to post at least 15 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in a Final Four game. In the nightcap, Kansas junior Jeff Withey swatted seven shots of his own, and made it all but impossible for Ohio State star Jared Sullinger to get clean looks in the second half.

Both also were huge in terms of altering several other shot attempts, which is tougher to spot by just looking at a box score.

[ Video: Did Ohio State blow it or did Kansas just have more magic? ]

And on Monday, they'll go right at each other.

While Davis led the nation in blocks per game in the regular season and Withey was seventh, Withey leads all NCAA tourney participants with 27 in five games. Davis isn't too far behind in second with 23. Both are playing at a high level, and both should be able to record a few more.

But who gets better help in the paint?

Withey is flanked by first-team All-American Thomas Robinson, who had 19 points and eight boards against Ohio State, while Kentucky's Terrence Jones had a rough night against Louisville, finishing with six points and seven rebounds on a night marred by early foul trouble.

2) Got glue?

Both teams will need performances from the glue guys who have emerged as key cogs down the stretch.

On the Kansas side, it will be junior guards Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson. Releford will be big on the defensive end, as he'll likely see lots of time against Kentucky star freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, while Johnson has emerged as a reliable scorer for the Jayhawks in the NCAA tournament. He had 13 points and 10 rebounds against Ohio State, and in seven games since the end of the regular season is averaging 15.4 points off of 53.2 percent shooting.

[ Pat Forde: John Calipari gets shot at redemption against Bill Self ]

For Kentucky, a team mostly known for its underclassman talent under John Calipari, the Wildcats will need another big night from senior stalwart Darius Miller. He hit a back-breaking 3-pointer late against Louisville on Saturday, and it was just the latest in a line of monster moments he's had this year. When the Wildcats get tight, he's typically been one who is able to get everyone loose again.

3) Limit the free possessions

Who can get more reliable point guard play?

Freshman Marquis Teague has grown to be more and more dependable late in the season as Kentucky's lead guard. He had six turnovers in the first meeting with Kansas, which was just his second collegiate game. SInce then, he's only had that many twice.

He'll be seeing plenty of Kansas's Tyshawn Taylor. The senior is known for combining the good with the bad in consecutive possessions with the best of them, but Bill Self has learned to live with a few of those head-shaking moments a game as long as Taylor delivers elsewhere. He had five turnovers Saturday, but produced some big late buckets and racked up nine assists. He also was one of the toughest defenders Aaron Craft had seen all year.

In an interesting statistical oddity, the Nov. 15 loss to Kentucky was one of two games all season in which Taylor didn't commit a single turnover.

Both teams had more turnovers than assists on Saturday night.

4) The sideline storyline

Everyone knows that John Calipari was so woefully close to his first national title in 2008 before Bill Self's squad pulled out a late miracle thanks to Derrick Rose's free throw struggles, Mario Chalmers' ridiculous 3-pointer at the end of regulation and Kansas simply having more momentum and gas in its tank in overtime.

Here they meet again with college basketball's biggest prize on the line.

[ Dan Wetzel: Anthony Davis is a superstar but hasn't learned to act like one ]

Winning big after clearing as many hurdles as his program has this season has further solidified Self as one of the game's top coaches. Calipari never gets enough credit because of past NCAA violations and the thinking that he's simply running a one-and-done factory in Lexington, but getting a collection of young, elite talent like the stockpile he has to play the way it has this season is something few could pull off.

Expect these two to steal plenty of headlines over the next 48 hours.

5) One stone-cold lock of a prediction: It will come down to the final minute

Kansas is maybe the toughest team in America to put away, one that only gets stronger as a game wears on, and Kentucky is known for having to fight through dead stretches once it builds a big lead.

The writing is pretty much on the wall. Monday night will be a classic between the two winningest programs in college hoop history. Rest up.

Ryan Greene also covers UNLV and the Mountain West Conference for RunRebs.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanmgreene.

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