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April 2, 2012
Back and Forth
Kansas vs. Kentucky

by John Gasaway and Ken Pomeroy

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John Gasaway: Welcome, everyone, to our annual and always spirited John-Ken discussion in advance of the national championship game!

Ken, for the past few years here we've been congratulating Butler and then hastening to add that their success means nothing larger in terms of "parity" or the relative position of mid-majors in general. I knew if we kept parroting that line we'd be right one of these times! Now look: Kansas and Kentucky, two blue-chip bullies. Everyone seems to think the Wildcats are going to win, but let's start things off here by entertaining the unthinkable. Kansas wins! Rank that upset. Bigger than UConn winning the title last year? Crazier than VCU in last year's Final Four? Stranger than the fact that an entire nation is now obsessed with the rules for lane violations? Seriously, how big an upset would a KU win really be?

Ken Pomeroy: Hmmm. I tend to think it wouldn't be that big. I mean, Vanderbilt felled this bunch of Wildcats three weeks ago, and Kansas went 16-2 in one of the toughest leagues in the nation. So let's simmer down on the David vs. Goliath angle. It feels like it's in the ballpark of something like UConn over Duke in '99. Or am I underestimating things here?

John: Every time I bring up that '99 game as a resounding upset someone points out, correctly, that Connecticut was a 1 seed. But no one thought they were going to win! And it's a great parallel, of course, because that Duke team also went 16-0 in their major conference that year. But let's speak of this particular case: I have to think if Kansas continues to play interior D the way they've been doing throughout the tournament, they at least have a shot. Tell me how crazy that is, and also whether it's time to proclaim officially that Jeff Withey is to shot-blocking what Brian Zoubek was to offensive rebounding....

Ken: I'm with you. We have the two best two-point FG percentage defenses in the nation squaring off. And people are finally seeing Withey as an elite shot-blocker. He doesn't bring the total package to the table that Anthony Davis does, but he can swat shots with anyone. The only limitation for him is staying on the floor. He has done that well in the tourney, though. Forcing Kentucky into contested twos is mandatory for Kansas, but Withey and Thomas Robinson should be able to make that happen with some regularity.

John: Withey fun fact: his already rare shooting has become even more rare in the tournament, and aside from an occasional defensive board he's not doing much on the glass either. Bill Self is happy to give this guy all the minutes he can play as long as he blocks and alters shots, period. But let's talk about the elephant in the room here. Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor are having a really tough time getting the ball in the basket during the tournament. Where did that come from, and can Self hypnotize them into thinking it's the first half against North Carolina again?

Ken: Will Tyshawn Taylor make another three-pointer as a Jayhawk? That would certainly help. I'm not too worked up about Robinson. He's faced some fine interior defenses the last two games and hasn't disgraced himself at all. He's not going to make 50 percent of his shots against Kentucky either, I bet. It's just the nature of the situation. What does one make of the notoriously turnover-prone Taylor playing against the notoriously turnover-averse Kentucky defense? It seems like a decent matchup for him, although it would be nice if he made some outside shots to help out Robinson a bit, and that's not easy to do against UK.

John: If I'm a KU fan I have my perimeter hopes pinned on Elijah Johnson. Anyway it's amazing the way Kansas fans now react to each very rare made three. More like it's a four. But let's shift the discussion to the favorite in this game. Are you as impressed with how Davis has filled out the non-shot-blocking portions of his resume as I am? I mean, 7-of-8 against Gorgui Dieng is not a bad day at the office. Davis shoots rarely, yet he's often his team's leading scorer. Pretty sweet, no?

Ken: Well, you don't see a season-long offensive rating of 136 every day. He doesn't shoot that much, and so many of his "shots" are throwdowns, which I'll go out on a limb and say partially explains his high FG percentage. However, he does take the occasional jumper and he's almost caught up to Ricardo Ratliffe in terms of two-point accuracy. Incredible. If he wasn't bothered much by Louisville's defense, can Kansas have any impact on him? Is this really his stage?

John: Did he say "stage"? I've heard varying interpretations. Anyway, I think Davis and Kentucky are perfectly designed for a great defense like Self's. Strictly speaking UK doesn't need a "big night" from Davis. He can get his 18 just by picking his moments and diving to the tin for yet another slam. And those guys he plays with are good. Doron Lamb's been amazing from outside, and, even though he shoots as rarely as Davis, Darius Miller has actually been amazing from everywhere during the tournament. Then again Louisville did come close to holding this juggernaut to a point per trip. Part of that was bad foul shooting by UK, of course, but was the rest just the Cardinals' greatness or something that should concern John Calipari as he gets ready to see another D just as good?

Ken: Yup, pretty sure it was "stage," John. Kentucky's free throw shooting woes were overlooked, but if you assume they make just four of their nine misses, they would have had the third-best offensive game anyone had against the Cardinals all season! So no, there are no concerns in my mind. At least not based on that game. The Cats have had the rare offensive dud this season. I mean, they could also go 6-of-28 on threes like they did against Vandy. But in the end, you have to acknowledge that UK O > UK D.

John: It's true in April too! Which leads me to my closing hypothetical, one diametrically opposed to what we opened with. Let's say everyone is right. Kentucky wins! Does this usher in a new era of even more total Calipari domination? After all, the guy's already alone in the "I've Been to the Last Three Elite Eights" club. Can he really get even scarier just because he does something Gary Williams once did? Will we be talking about Kentucky in these national championship previews every year forever?

Ken: Those are good questions.

John: Don't act so surprised.

Ken: Living in your hypothetical, I'll be asking just how easy was it to get this collection of talent to play as a team? How much of it was Calipari and how much of it was the players? It's pretty clear Calipari will have an excess of talent as long as he chooses to reside in Lexington. And he seems like he is excellent at managing that talent. Getting to these games is still difficult, though, and it always takes a bit of good fortune. I don't care how easy his team made it look in 2012. So I think John Wooden's track record is pretty safe, but with a victory we'll have to admit that Kentucky basketball is the standard in college basketball for now.

John: Kind of like we're the standard for national championship game previewing. I get to be Davis because I'm taller. I have you penciled in as MKG. Fair?

Ken: Sounds like a great deal. I've always wanted to be known by my initials, and you'll have to play for the Bobcats next year.

John: Actually I'm hoping New Orleans can tank a smidge harder to get me, that way I can just stay put after the game. But, yeah, when it comes to the previewing and analysis, THIS IS MY PAGE! THIS IS MY PAGE!

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John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Ken by clicking here or click here to see Ken's other articles.

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