When Bill Self and John Calipari coached against each other in the 2008 national championship game, Kansas (Self's team) and Memphis (Calipari's) really did seem to me to be the two best teams in the country. (Even though that year's overall No. 1 seed was actually North Carolina.) As we all know, the Jayhawks won that game after Mario Chalmers' 3-pointer with two seconds left sent the contest to overtime.
This year, however, the national championship game matchup between Self's KU squad and Calipari's Kentucky team feels different to me. Mind you, I have the utmost respect for the Jayhawks' ability. For one thing I picked them to make it this far. Furthermore I was at least mildly surprised that this Kansas team wasn't given a No. 1 seed.
Clearly I view KU as one of the very best teams in the country. I just happen to think this year there's a clear gap between Kentucky and the next tier of teams. I saw that gap in performance between the Wildcats and everyone else during the regular season, and it's persisted into the NCAA tournament. That's why I, along with a good many others, expect the Wildcats to win the national championship.
Is it possible that expectation will be proven wrong? Of course it is. In fact if I were Calipari, here is the 100 percent accurate statement I would make to my team to make sure I have their attention: "Guys, we just beat Louisville by all of eight points, and, with all due respect to the Cardinals, Kansas is a much, much better team."
The Jayhawks beating UK would not be the strangest thing we've seen take place in this tournament by any means, I just don't expect it to happen. Here's what I'm basing my expectation on:
Kansas isn't scoring
If you've ever wondered what it takes to win the Naismith Coach of the Year Award, one career path apparently goes like this: Take a team to the national championship game even though your two leading scorers have been more or less ineffective in the NCAA tournament. That's what 2012 Naismith Award Winner Self has done. Somehow.
Thomas Robinson has made just 39 percent of his twos in the tournament. During that same stretch of five games Tyshawn Taylor has attempted no fewer than 20 three-pointers without making a single one. He is 0 for 20. Kansas is about to play for the national championship despite the fact that they've scored just 332 points in 333 tournament possessions. As a team they're shooting 48 percent on their twos and 24 percent on their threes in the tournament.
Certainly you can see how good this Kansas team really was during the regular season when their perimeter shooting was normal, and indeed how good they've had to be to still be playing in April even though they've struggled so mightily in terms of shooting the ball. Obviously KU's defense has been incredible to get them five wins during a stretch like this.
Opponents in the NCAA tournament have made less than 39 percent of their twos against the Jayhawks and keep in mind Self's team has been able to do this without fouling. You can trace a good deal of this amazing interior defense to the presence of Jeff Withey. You'll be hearing a lot about the relative merits of Withey versus Anthony Davis as shot-blockers. The simple version is this: Withey has a slightly higher block rate than Davis this year (where block rate is the percentage of an opponent's shots blocked during that player's minutes). And during the NCAA tournament Withey's block rate has been far superior to what Davis has posted.
Withey is the genuine article on D, but a bounce here and a free throw there and we're not here talking about his block rate in April....
The Jayhawks have been winning a lot of close games
KU beat Purdue, NC State, and Ohio State by three, three, and two points respectively. Even what appears to be a comfortable 13-point win over North Carolina was in fact a one-point game with less than four minutes remaining.
What's worrisome about all these close games isn't that Kansas is somehow doomed if they play one more. The troubling thought here is simply that playing in this many close games means your performance hasn't been good enough to keep you out of "crunch time" in the first place. The Jayhawks have outscored their tournament opponents by 0.11 points per possession. Conversely Kentucky has been 0.18 points per trip better than the teams they've met in the brackets.
No tournament opponent's been able to make Kentucky miss shots
Louisville succeeded in limiting the Wildcats to 1.02 points per possession by doing a good job on the defensive glass and by getting in position for a fair number of block/charge calls to go their way. It also didn't hurt that the Cardinals got a little lucky, as UK hit just 11 of 20 free throws. But if you're Kansas it's a little disturbing to think you've been struggling on offense and now you're about to play an opponent that's made 57 percent of its twos and 43 percent of its threes in the tournament.
Davis is getting better the longer he plays
I mentioned earlier that Withey's been a better shot-blocker than Davis, particularly in the NCAA tournament. But, I need hardly add, Davis is still pretty fair in that department. He's recorded five or more blocks in three of his team's five tournament games, and he too, like Withey, has been able for the most part to stay away from foul trouble. But here's where the comparisons to Withey end.
In addition to being Kentucky's shot-blocking intimidator, Davis now carries out the less glamorous but no less vital task of cleaning the defensive glass. In the tournament he has personally pulled down 26 percent of opponents' misses during his minutes. As I said last week, Davis functions something like a one-player defensive cornerstone.
But what's really striking to me is the way Davis has developed on offense. In the Louisville game he was guarded by 6-10 shot-blocker Gorgui Dieng -- hardly chopped liver where D is concerned -- and all Davis did was record an 18-14 double-double on 7-of-8 shooting. In the tournament the freshman's making an incredible 73 percent of his twos. True, that number's helped along by the fact that Davis doesn't have to carry as large a scoring load as, say, Robinson does for Kansas. (Doron Lamb and Darius Miller, to cite two examples, have been right there alongside Davis in terms of tournament scoring efficiency.) Still, I have the feeling Calipari's star could handle a few more touches with harming his team's offense too greatly.
The last time Self and Calipari met in the national championship game, it was Self who came out on top. The doubters who had said the Kansas coach couldn't win the big one were silenced (at least temporarily). Of course, the same doubts have been voiced with regard to Calipari. I have a hunch the Kentucky coach is about to take a page from Self's book and prove his own critics wrong.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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