NEW ORLEANS — Jayhawks or Wildcats, take your pick. Either can make a case for this being “their” year.
For Kansas, a season that started with low expectations keeps getting better, filled with high-wire comebacks and an inescapable feeling that this was simply meant to be.
For Kentucky, a cadre of NBA-caliber players have had the word “champion” practically imprinted on their chests since they gathered at Rupp Arena for the season’s first practice.
They meet tonight for the NCAA championship, a history-filled matchup between the two winningest programs in college basketball history.
This is the one-and-dones at Kentucky vs. juniors and seniors at Kansas; Anthony Davis vs. Thomas Robinson in a front-court battle of All-Americans; a title-game coaching rematch between John Calipari and Bill Self; a high-stakes meeting between one team whose founder (James Naismith) invented the game and another that likes to claim its legendary coach (Adolf Rupp) perfected it.
Kentucky (37-2), in search of its eighth national title but its first since 1998, has five, maybe six, players who will be playing in the NBA soon. Most are freshmen and sophomores. None are better than Davis.
“Anthony Davis is a great player, but he’s not Superman,” Self said, clearly ignoring the fact that, only moments earlier, Davis had been walking around the Superdome with his jersey
slung across his shoulders like a cape.
As he has all year and all tournament, Calipari has not so much defended as explained his coaching philosophy, which is to go after the very best players and not demand they graduate, but only that they play team basketball for whatever amount of time they spend in the Commonwealth.
“I don’t like the rules,” Calipari said. “I want Anthony to come back and be my point guard next year. It’s really what I want. There’s only two solutions to it. Either I can recruit players who are not as good as the players I’m recruiting or I can try to convince guys who should leave to stay for me.”
Calipari is a win away from the first national title of a stormy and controversial career, one that began as a volunteer assistant at Kansas. His first two trips, including the 2008 Memphis that lost to the Jayhawks in the title game, to the Final Four have been vacated because of NCAA violations.
So many iconic names have followed at both places: Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Brown, Danny Manning at KU; Dan Issel, Wes Unseld, Rick Pitino at Kentucky.
Tonight, somebody else could get their name up in the rafters at Allen Fieldhouse or Rupp Arena.
“I dreamed about it as soon as I saw the brackets,” Self said. “I did look. I said, ‘How cool would it be to play Kentucky in the finals?’ You guys know better than me, but when do you have the two winningest programs in the history of ball playing each other? I don’t know when. From a historic standpoint, I think that’s really cool.’ ”