The Kentucky Wildcats beat the Kansas Jayhawks 67-59 Monday night in New Orleans, claiming their eighth NCAA men’s basketball title and head coach John Calipari’s first.
The Jayhawks trailed by 14 at halftime, and just 5 points separated the teams with about a minute left in the game. But Kansas couldn’t get any closer to beating Kentucky, a team stacked with young talent that had dominated the whole tournament.
It’s a common refrain in New Orleans: “Laissez les bons temps rouler” — “Let the good times roll.” But, the way Kentucky played, you might say “Let the good ‘Cats roll.” They annihilated opponents in their region, and once they got to the Crescent City, they kept right on rolling. They beat Louisville by 8 points in a semifinal game that really wasn’t that close, and they beat Kansas by 8 in a game that wasn’t even as close as that.
Bill Self, the Kansas coach whose players fought hard, said his team put itself in position to make it a one-possession game but “just didn’t get it done.”
“But it wasn’t from a lack of try or lack of competitive juice or lack of toughness,” he said.
Yes, but for a few breaks and a few plays, Kansas might have been within spitting distance of striking distance — and that counts as a close game against Kentucky.
If Kentucky’s NCAA run were a prime-time series, it would have been canceled halfway through for lack of drama. As a soap opera, though, there were a lot of story lines.
For one, there was the youth angle. For only the fourth time in tournament history, a freshman was named Most Outstanding Player: Anthony Davis. Other young stars — Marquis Teague, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones — dominated at times. But it’s the way Davis took over games that earned him the award.
Objectively speaking, he had an awful shooting night: 1-for-10 from the field. But he racked up 6 blocks, 5 assists and 16 rebounds.
After 20 minutes of play, Calipari said he knew Davis “didn’t have a point.”
“And before he left the … locker room, I said, ‘Listen to me: Don’t you now go out there and try to score,” the coach said. ” ‘If you have opportunities, score the ball. If you don’t, don’t worry about it. You’re the best player in the building, so don’t worry.’ “
Davis isn’t the best big man in college basketball history — think Bill Walton, Lew Alcindor or Patrick Ewing. But no freshman center has ever demonstrated an array of skills that are quite as polished. And they’ll have to be. By all accounts, Davis will be leaving for the NBA. The whole team may well join him.
The rule that permits great players to leave after just one year is something Calipari is made to answer for constantly. In short, he says, “It is a rule. It’s not my rule. It’s a rule we have to deal with.”
The other dramatic angle of this championship was the accomplished coach finally winning a title. Calipari was asked endlessly if a title would be vindication, or at least a permanent rejoinder to critics. The coach maintained that earning a title for himself wasn’t a motivation; he just wanted to win his team a title.
But forward Terrence Jones weighed in on what Calipari’s accomplishment means to the players.
“For us as players that play for him, it means a lot just because he gives us so much credit anytime we win, and he’ll take all the fault if anything goes wrong,” Jones said. “Just to win for him is just something special. We play so hard for us to just play for him.”
That’s why, Calipari said in the last sentence of his postgame remarks, “I’ve got to go recruiting on Friday.”