NEW ORLEANS – And so it comes to this: The last impediment to John Calipari's Sherman-through-Georgia, slash-and-burn march to the national title is none other than Bill Self.
In a Final Four for settling scores, Calipari gets a shot at the guy who dealt him the most painful defeat of his career – the 2008 national title game. Cue the Mario Chalmers video because you're going to be seeing his immortal shot endlessly before the teams tip off Monday.
Against Self and Kansas, Cal's Memphis team had the game won until it collapsed at the end of regulation. A nine-point lead with 2:12 left melted into nothing when Chalmers hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime, and the shell-shocked Tigers were done at that point.
Perhaps it was best for Memphians that the Tigers lost that game because they would have had to endure a vacated national title had they won. Memphis was stripped of that Final Four appearance by the NCAA when star point guard Derrick Rose was declared retroactively ineligible because of a fishy SAT score.
But it was a heck of a game, even if it technically never happened. A coaching rematch of the most memorable title game of the 21st century is the proper final act in a season dominated by Calipari's Kentucky team.
He came to New Orleans seeking the national title that has eluded him throughout his controversial career. To get it, he first had to contend with his fiercest coaching rival, Rick Pitino, a man who eliminated Calipari teams in the '96 Final Four and '92 Sweet 16. When Kentucky held off determined Louisville 69-61 Saturday night, we had one settled score at the Four.
Monday night, Calipari can finish the payback tour with another shot at Self.
"The Memphis team was really good, no question about that," Self said Saturday night, after his Jayhawks rallied to steal a 64-62 thriller from Ohio State. "But I think this Kentucky team is better than that Memphis team."
That's sobering news for the Jayhawks because this Kansas team is not as good as the '08 Kansas team. It took another in a series of late-game escapes to reach the national title game, whereas the '08 squad roared in off a semifinal blowout of North Carolina.
"We still haven't played terrific in the tournament," Self said, "but somehow these guys find ways to win games."
The discovery of a way to win against Ohio State took until late into the night Saturday. Kansas led 2-0, then didn't lead again until 2:48 remained. The Jayhawks' largest lead was three points, and their total time in the lead was a puny 3:11.
That follows a pattern. Kansas never led for a second in the round of 32 against Purdue until 3:06 remained, then promptly fell behind again. It took a 6-0 run in the final 1:06 – aided and abetted by a couple of brutal Boilermakers possessions – to pull out that victory.
Between that great escape against a Big Ten opponent and this one in the Superdome, there was a three-point stagger past No. 11 seed North Carolina State in the Sweet 16 and a late pullaway from injury-depleted North Carolina in the regional final.
"These guys had to make all the plays down the stretch," Self said.
Contrast that with Kentucky, which led for 38:09 of the 40 minutes against Louisville. The Wildcats have been dominant front-runners all season, and especially in this NCAA tourney. In 200 minutes of tournament play, UK has trailed for all of 6:43.
"Are they beatable? No question about it because Vanderbilt did it [in the SEC tourney final]," Pitino said. "But you're going to have to play great offense, great defense, and you got to bring your 'A plus' game and they have to have a 'B' game. That's what has to happen. They're a great ballclub."
So the matchup of bluebloods feels more like a big favorite and a plucky/lucky underdog. They're the two winningest programs in college basketball history – Kentucky gunning for its eighth national title, Kansas striving for its fourth – but the talent edge is solidly in favor of the Wildcats.
[ Related: Kansas rallies past Ohio State and into title game | Slideshow ]
The question is whether Self has the coaching edge. He has done the best work of his accomplished career getting to the title game. But Calipari might be doing his best work as well.
"Cal gets a lot of credit for recruiting," Self said. "But the thing that I think is sometimes lost is he's one of the very best coaches there is in the country. I mean, he can coach. And he takes guys that are so highly recruited, been told how good they are … and he gets them to buy into 'we' instead of 'me.' They're unselfish, they're tough, they're physical and they guard."
The best example of what makes Kentucky special was a small play Saturday against Louisville. With the Cardinals having battled back to tie the score at 49, turning three fan bases into a roaring force against the Wildcats, the great Anthony Davis took a contested shot against Louisville center Gorgui Dieng. He missed it badly, but hustled to the other side of the rim to collect the offensive rebound and pass it to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for an easy layup.
College basketball is annoyingly full of highly touted teenagers who wouldn't bother making that play. Too much work. But of all the things Davis, who will be the 2012 No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, does well, the most beautiful thing may be his willingness to hustle on every play.
"I want to get every rebound, play as hard as I can," Davis said. "I don't want to take no possessions off."
The final possessions of Davis' college career and of the entire 2012 season are upcoming Monday night. It is fitting that in John Calipari's Final Four for settling scores, the last man blocking his path to possessing the national title is the same man who denied him four years ago.
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