NEW ORLEANS – On the way to Kentucky's "One Shining Moment," there was one fleeting moment when it looked as if the whole thing might collapse.
That moment came with 63 seconds left in Monday's national championship game. By then, gritty Kansas had whittled a seemingly insurmountable 18-point Wildcats lead to six, and the Jayhawks had the ball. The Kentucky fans in the Superdome were actively losing their minds, and John Calipari surely had a dreadful dose of déjà vu knowing that Bill Self already had swiped one seemingly secure national title from him four years earlier.
Now Self was getting close to doing it again. The Big Blue pucker factor was high.
Coming out of a timeout, Self drew up one of Kansas' go-to plays: Elijah Johnson driving to the right wing and looking for Tyshawn Taylor. In one variation of the play, Taylor would cut outside behind Johnson and take a shovel pass for a 3-point shot; that's the version Self famously ran with Sherron Collins and Mario Chalmers in the 2008 national title game, but also the version he used without success at Missouri in early February.
In the other variation, Taylor fakes to the perimeter and cuts hard looking for a backdoor pass. That's the version Kansas ran for a huge basket at home against Missouri in the Jayhawks' 19-point comeback victory in late February.
Self went with the second variation. Taylor went backdoor, beating freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The cinch lottery pick basically had disappeared for the entire second half, and here he got caught flat-footed at the worst possible moment.
"I definitely thought I had a layup," Taylor said.
So did the rest of the Superdome.
But what happened next is a big reason this Kentucky team is a modern-day colossus. The 6-foot-7 Kidd-Gilchrist had the athleticism and the hustle to close the daylight Taylor had opened up. As the senior went to reverse his layup on the opposite side of the rim, the freshman flew in to swat the ball away.
"He didn't quit on the play," Taylor said of Kidd-Gilchrist. "His length is something you can't really teach. So him not giving up, then him using his length, he made an unbelievable play."
Taylor retrieved the blocked shot, but his pass to Thomas Robinson whistled straight through the big man's hands for a turnover. The fleeting moment passed, and Kentucky made foul shots in the final minute to close out the victory.
"I got beat on the backdoor," Kidd-Gilchrist said in the postgame interview. "I apologize, coach."
"It's OK, Michael," John Calipari responded.
It was indeed OK. The 'Cats won the game and snipped the nets, and Kidd-Gilchrist was among the players getting bro-hugs from Nike kingpin Phil Knight – who was wearing a UK national championship hat – in Kentucky's locker room. The only thing missing from the postgame locker room was Worldwide Wes giving Calipari a Gatorade bath.
On the game's decisive play, Kidd-Gilchrist made up for his mistake with two of the three things this Kentucky team had in bulk: jaw-dropping athletic talent and relentless effort. When you add remarkable teamwork to the equation, the result is a dominant season.
At 38-2, these Wildcats will be measured against some of the other great champions in college basketball history. It says here that this Kentucky team doesn't measure up – not in terms of sheer talent, but in terms of experienced talent.
It's crazy to think of it today, but Patrick Ewing played four years of college. So did Christian Laettner. Larry Johnson had a Senior Day at UNLV.
This Kentucky team is comprised of freshmen and sophomores, plus anachronistic senior Darius Miller. No matter how talented, the young pups wouldn't fare well against Georgetown's 1984 champions, who were 34-3 in Ewing's junior season. Or against Duke's 1992 title team, which went 34-2 in Laettner's senior season. Or UNLV's 1990 champs, who were 35-5 in Johnson's junior year.
This isn't even the best Kentucky team of the past 20 years. That title still belongs to the 1996 Wildcats, who went 34-2 with seven NBA players and a 10-deep rotation. And it's not particularly close.
The average margin of victory in the NCAA tournament for the '96 team was 21.5 points. The average margin of NCAA tourney victory for this UK team was 11.8.
The average margin of victory in a 16-0 run through the SEC for the '96 team was 23.6 points – and the SEC that season put two teams in the Final Four and four in the Sweet 16. The average margin of victory in a 16-0 run through the SEC for this UK team was 16.4.
So don't get carried away thinking of where this team ranks among the all-time greats. The coach of the 'Cats isn't.
"I sat up there [on the podium], and I was ready to say, 'If this was 1985, I would have that team back,' " Calipari told reporters after the formal news conference. "And I would've said, 'Next year, we're trying to win 'em all.' But you know what? It's not 25 years ago. It's now. You have to deal with the reality of the way it is."
Here's another aspect of the new reality: In the modern era of players fleeing campus, you will not find a better team than this one in a long time. Maybe ever.
You won't find many teams that have six first-round draft picks, for one thing. You won't find teams that blend that raw talent with unselfish, intelligent and relentless play. And you won't find teams capable of controlling an NCAA title game in which the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player misses nine of 10 shots and scores six points, as Anthony Davis did Monday night.
Only once before has the Final Four MOP scored single digits in the title game; that was Duke's Bobby Hurley in 1992. Hurley played an excellent floor game that season against Michigan in the final, and Davis did the same here; he had 16 rebounds, six blocked shots, five assists and three steals against the Jayhawks.
Davis did in New Orleans what he did all season – made teams play a different offensive game than they wanted to play. He is the greatest defensive presence in college basketball since Ewing.
"He's got timing, his first jump is unbelievable and he's a very smart defender as well," Self said.
Davis' next jump will be to the NBA, of course, and he'll have a lot of company off this Kentucky squad. But even if their stay in Lexington was short, they left UK fans a lovely parting gift.
Fans like my neighbor Jackie Kelly, 76, a native of the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky. She grew up without electricity in her house until she was 15, so the family followed the Wildcats on a battery-powered radio.
Jackie and her husband, Don, moved to Louisville decades ago. Don was a good high school basketball player who shot hoops on the goal in their backyard into his late 60s, until Parkinson's robbed him on that lifelong pleasure. I don't hear the ball bouncing in their backyard anymore, which is sad.
Jackie is as nuts about the 'Cats today as she was then. When the games get tight, I look out the window and see her white Camry rolling out of the driveway. She will go shopping. She can't bear to watch the close ones.
I hope she watched Monday night. I hope she saw Michael Kidd-Gilchrist flash in from nowhere to block Tyshawn Taylor's shot and secure Kentucky's eighth national title. And I hope she enjoyed watching a team that may not be one for the ages but also may not be topped by any future champions.