There are many reasons why Kentucky should run Kansas from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Monday. If talent and logic were the lone forces at work, John Calipari and his NBA-ready stars would celebrate the Wildcats’ first national championship since 1998 in a 15-point rout. There would be little reason for the Jayhawks to believe.
Kentucky’s victory, after all, would be swift and unforgiving. Kansas would be dismissed as a scrappy and spirited group that met reality after a charmed three weeks.
But the NCAA tournament isn’t about convention. It’s about belief. It’s about survival over skill. It’s about snatching momentum, creating memories from the unexpected and making surprise seem routine.
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That’s why Kansas will win its second national title in five seasons in a city known for mystery. Some rebuilding year, right?
Few saw this coming after the Jayhawks’ key offseason losses of Tyrel Reed, Brady Morningstar and brothers Markieff and Marcus Morris. Few saw this coming after they fell to Davidson to drop to 7-3 on Dec. 19, a time when coach Bill Self said, “That wasn’t an upset tonight.” And few saw this coming after sloppy efforts produced consecutive three-point victories over Purdue and North Carolina State to reach the Elite Eight.
But the Jayhawks kept winning, and here they are: One triumph from a stunning championship after overcoming a nine-point halftime deficit against Ohio State on Saturday. Kansas has overachieved since clinching its eighth consecutive Big 12 regular season title. This should be remembered as Self’s best coaching job in his nine seasons in Lawrence.
So why doubt Kansas anymore? Why can’t this journey end where few expected it to lead: A crimson-and-blue coronation?
“It’s a thrill,” Self told reporters Saturday night. “And I think it’s even more of a thrill for us, because I don’t think anybody thought we could get here.”
Yes, not many did, and the same faces that pushed Kansas to this point will help the Jayhawks snip the nets Monday. There’s National Player of the Year candidate Thomas Robinson, who had a game-high 19 points against the Buckeyes. There’s Tyshawn Taylor, who had 10 points and nine assists to offset his five turnovers. There’s Jeff Withey, who continued his stellar month by blocking seven shots and limiting Jared Sullinger to 13 points – his smallest output in four games.
There are others who contributed as well. Elijah Johnson had 13 points and a team-high 10 rebounds. Travis Releford had 15 points. Kansas rallied past Ohio State because it was versatile and had more heart in the second half.
The Jayhawks also have a proven leader. No one in the country is coaching better than Self, and he has already topped Calipari with a national championship at stake. In 2008, Kansas erased a nine-point deficit against Memphis in the last two minutes to force overtime. With that momentum, the Jayhawks outscored the Tigers 12-5 in the extra period to clinch the program’s first crown since 1988.
On Monday, Self and Calipari will meet again. Kentucky has greater depth, but Kansas won’t be impressed. The Jayhawks have shown they can overcome anything since surging to beat Purdue in the round of 32 – early deficits and late holes, shooting slumps and mindless turnovers. Through it all, they have survived.
“It’s just been our thing all year, coming back,” Robinson told reporters Saturday. “I don’t like doing it, but for some reason my team is pretty good when we’re down.”
The Jayhawks are more than good – they’re dangerous. Yes, Kentucky has better talent. Yes, logic suggests the Wildcats should win.
But Kansas’ run to this point has defied convention.