John Calipari and Bill Self (AP)
John Calipari and Bill Self (AP)
A is for the adversity Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor overcame growing up in a crime-ridden part of Hoboken, N.J. "The people in my life that were important to me made sure I kept a basketball in my hands and I didn't stray no matter how hard it got," Taylor said. "My mom, my godmother, my big brother my aunt. Even those guys that I saw gang-banging and drug dealing, those guys told me they didn't want me to have to do that."
B is for blocked shots, something both Kentucky center Anthony Davis and Kansas center Jeff Withey excel at. Davis leads the nation at 4.6 blocks per game and has swatted 23 in five NCAA tournament games. Withey averaged 3.6 blocks per game this season, but he has tallied 27 in the NCAA tournament.
Tyshawn Taylor and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (AP)
Tyshawn Taylor and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (AP)
D is for the desire Kentucky players have to deliver Calipari his first championship no matter how many times he insists he feels good about his career even though he hasn't won one. "He feels like he's had a successful career developing players, but at the end of the day, a coach that's so passionate, he still wants to win a championship," Marquis Teague said. "We're going to try to make that happen."
E is for erroneous, which is what any story hyping the matchup between national player of the year candidates Davis and Thomas Robinson will be. In reality, Davis will check Withey and Robinson will defend Terrence Jones. Said Kansas coach Bill Self, "They're not going to be matched up against each other besides emergency switches."
F is for free throws, which helped lose Calipari the 2008 championship when Memphis missed four out of five free throws in the final two minutes of regulation after building a nine-point lead. Calipari insists he's not worried about history repeating itself and with good reason — Kentucky shoots a solid 72.5 percent from the foul line this year.
G is for governor, which is what Calipari said popular guard Darius Miller could run for in the state of Kentucky after a stellar four-year career. Miller, however, insists he has such inspirations. "First of all I know nothing about politics," Miller said, "so I don't think that would be good for the state at all."
H is for the hysteria back in Lexington after Kentucky's victory over Louisville on Saturday night. Rioting fans burned couches and turned over cars, a scene that may be repeated Monday night win or lose. "It's crazy there right now," Teague said. "It shows how much they love basketball."
I is for the identity Self tried to instill in his team in the preseason when he told them they weren't talented enough to win with offensive flair like in years past. Early losses helped persuade the Jayhawks they needed to grind out wins differently this year. "When coach told us that, it was like, 'Yeah, alright," Taylor said. "I honestly don't know if we still don't believe believe we can't score with the best of them, but if we're being real, we'll admit that the games that we've won, we've been tough, we've rebounded and we've defended."
J is for Jay-Z, the famed rapper who was in Kentucky's locker room during the NCAA tournament two years ago and cheered for the Wildcats in the stands during Saturday's Louisville game. "It's crazy to look over behind your bench and see Jay-Z cheering for your team," freshman guard Marquis Teague said. "It's a cool thing to experience."
K is for Bobby Knight, the legendary former Indiana and Texas Tech coach who rarely mentions the word "Kentucky" because of his apparent dislike for Calipari. It would be an awkward delight to hear Knight refer to Kentucky as "that team from the SEC that won the national championship" in the coming weeks.
L is for Monday night's line, which opened with Kentucky a 6.5-point favorite. Self admits Kansas ought to be the underdog, but he doesn't think the talent discrepancy between the two teams is the chasm some have portrayed it to be. "I haven't seen anybody pick us," Self said. "If anybody did pick us, it would probably be Digger (Phelps), and that would be the kiss of death."
M is for Mario Chalmers, the guard who helped deliver Kansas the 2008 national title at Calipari's expense with his three at the buzzer to force overtime. Asked which of his guys he'd want taking a similar shot for him this year, Self said the beauty of this Kansas team is that every starter is capable. "I think who we'd probably go to would be the open man," he said. "At least that's the way I hope we play."
N is for CBS announcer Jim Nantz, whose scripted game-ending lines are a cheesy staple of any national title game broadcast. Predicted Nantzism if Kentucky wins: "Youth has been served." Predicted Nantzism if Kansas wins: "A big upset in the Big Easy."
O is for the outside shot many gave Kansas of even contending for the Big 12 title this season, let alone winning the national title. Despite the loss of the Morris twins, Josh Selby and Brady Morningstar, the Jayhawks have exceeded all expectations thanks to the emergence of Robinson as a player of the year candidate and the development of Taylor, Withey and others.
P is for "Peas or corn?" That's the question Calipari says he asked every day while serving food at the athletic training table as a volunteer assistant at Kansas in 1982. Calipari stayed at Kansas for two more years and met his future wife, Ellen, who worked in the school's business office.
Q is for quality, a term that fits both these programs. Kentucky and Kansas have amassed a total of 29 Final Four appearances and 10 NCAA tournament championships, between them. "I think it's pretty neat that you have two winningest programs of all time hooking up," Self said. "The bluest of the bluebloods getting a chance to play. It should be a great event, one that I'm sure will draw a lot of national attention coast-to-coast."
R is for rebounding, an area that Kentucky was uncharacteristically poor in Saturday against Louisville. The Cardinals amassed 18 offensive rebounds and parlayed many of them into second-chance points, helping them remain in the game despite 34.8 percent shooting. "That's something we can't have tomorrow or we're going to lose," Miller said.
S is for the seat cushions Kansas fans flung in the air like caps on graduation day after the final buzzer sounded on Saturday night's semifinal win over Ohio State. "At first I did not know what was getting thrown in the air," Kansas guard Connor Teahan said. "I don't know what started it, but I liked it." Expect more if Kansas pulls the upset Monday night.
T is for "The best active coach never to win a title," the bittersweet label Calipari will finally shake with a win on Monday night. A loss and in my eyes he remains behind only former Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton historically among the most accomplished coaches without a championship ring.
U is for Anthony Davis' famed unibrow, which has spawned everything from "Brow down" t-shirts, to "Fear the brow" signs to students shaving a replica unibrow into their chest hair or drawing unibrows onto their face in permanent black marker. "I just embrace it," Davis said. "The fans enjoy it and the signs are everywhere now. They've been making everything out of it. I've even seen a baby with a unibrow on Twitter."
V is for volleyball, Withey's sport of choice as a kid. The Southern California native gave up volleyball to focus exclusively on hoops after his freshman year of high school, but the 7-footer says the timing, jumping ability and footwork he gained from that sport has translated onto the basketball floor.
W is for Washington, the school Kentucky forward Terrence Jones originally committed to in a news conference in April 2010 before backing out of that decision and signing with Kentucky instead a few weeks later. "It was tough because I had great relationships with both head coaches," Jones said. "I just felt I would be challenged here moving further away from home and playing for Coach Cal."
X is for X-factors, something both teams have. For Kansas, it's Elijah Johnson, the junior guard who has cut down his turnovers and bad decisions tremendously the past few months but still has flashes of ill-timed erratic play. And for Kentucky, it's the outside shooting of Doron Lamb and Miller. When those two are hitting from the perimeter, the Wildcats become very, very difficult to beat.
Y is for youth, a weakness that has yet to materialize for Kentucky this season. Six of the Wildcats' top seven players are either freshmen or sophomores, but the Wildcats have played with poise, confidence and purpose beyond their years. "Nobody's recruited like Cal has," Self said. "Nobody's coached his guys better, too, considering how many young kids he has and how he gets them to play with one purpose."
Z is for zero, the chance that this year's title game will be as hard-to-watch as last year's. My prediction: Kentucky 72, Kansas 64.
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