Wiedmer: Kansas is not intimidated by Top Cats

Wiedmer: Kansas is not intimidated by Top Cats

April 2nd, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

NEW ORLEANS -- Kansas coach Bill Self says he dreamed about it as early as Selection Sunday, as soon as the brackets came out.

"I did look," he said. "I said, 'How cool would it be to play Kentucky in the finals?' When have the two winningest programs in the history of basketball played each other [for the national championship]? From a historic standpoint, I think that's pretty cool."

It is pretty cool. The bluest of the bluebloods in more ways than their dominant school colors. Kentucky owns both the most overall wins in college hoops history (2,089) and the most NCAA tourney wins (110). Kansas stands second in total wins with 2,070 and fifth in NCAA wins with 93. Beyond that, the Wildcats have seven titles -- second to UCLA's 11 -- while the Jayhawks have three, more than everyone save UCLA, Kentucky, Indiana, North Carolina and Duke.

Yet whatever UK's superior history, no one's been cooler under fire in this tournament than Self and his Jayhawks. Three of their five NCAA tourney wins have come by three or fewer points. Against Ohio State in Saturday's semifinal, KU came from 13 points down to win 64-62 and set up a rematch with UK's Top Cats, who whipped the Jayhawks by 10 points in Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15.

But the improbability of their run to tonight's title game doesn't stop there. KU has shot less than 30 percent from the 3-point line in four of their five wins, yet lived to fight another day. Senior Point guard Tyshawn Taylor -- who was hitting nearly 40 percent of his 3-pointers entering the NCAA tourney -- has gone 0-for-20 from behind the arc in the postseason.

"I'm definitely due," Taylor said Sunday. "I think the basketball gods are with me. I got to make one. But if not, we've shown that we can win without me making threes. Doesn't make a difference."

And that's what could make a huge difference tonight when the two teams tip off at 9:23 EDT on CBS. The Jayhawks have won 13 of their last 14 in good times and bad, knocking off Midwest No. 1 seed North Carolina a week ago while scoring the last 12 points of the game, out-toughing the Buckeyes and believing UK's got nothing on them but reputation.

"They've got to bleed just like we bleed," said Thomas Robinson, who was bloodied on numerous national player of the year ballots by UK's Anthony Davis. "It's not about me versus Anthony Davis. It's about Kansas versus Kentucky and everything will be proven Monday night."

We've seen this more times than not in the national champion game. No overall No. 1 seed has won the tournament since 2007, when defending champion Florida repeated. Every other overall No. 1 has lost, though only Illinois in 2005 did it in the title game, falling to North Carolina.

What makes KU's ability to beat UK worth studying is not only the individual matchups, but the psyche of a team that seems to believe itself to be the Big Blue's equal, a fact buoyed by its four straight wins over No. 1 seeds dating back to 2003.

"We've been dealing with being the underdog all year," said Kansas junior guard Travis Releford, who scored 15 points against the Buckeyes and hit four free throws in the final three minutes. "Going into every game nobody expects us to win. We'll just leave it out on the court and have fun. We don't really pay attention to the score until the game's over and that's worked out well for us."

This is not to say Kentucky can't or shouldn't win. The Wildcats have looked like the best team in the country most of the season in rolling to a 37-2 overall record, winning four of their five NCAA tourney games by double-figures and knocking out bitter rival Louisville in Saturday's semi 69-61.

But Kansas has its own advantages. There's 7-footer Jeff Withey, whose 27 NCAA tourney blocks are actually four more than UK's Davis.

There's Robinson, an unspoken chip on his shoulder from losing out to Davis on so many player of the year awards despite averaging both more points (17.7 to 14.4) and rebounds (11.7 to 10.2).

"He's not Superman," said Robinson of Davis on Sunday. "I want payback. I want a ring."

Then there's Taylor, who was labeled "Tyshawn Turnover" by more than a few KU fans after coughing up 11 TOs against Duke in a finals loss to Duke in the Maui Invitational.

"I watched him cry all the way home after that game," said Robinson of his teammate. "Tyshawn's a live-and-die kind of player."

Said Taylor: "I never had an up-and-down relationship with the fans, but they had an up-and-down relationship with me at one time, which was fair."

What's fair is that these two storied programs will meet for the second time in 139 days with the NCAA title on the line.

Asked how much better the Jayhawks are now than then, Robinson said, "Off the charts. We're far, far ahead of where we were in November."

If he's right, make it KU, 68-65. Otherwise, look for UK to win 74-67, adding an eighth national championship to its hardware case.