NEW ORLEANS — Kansas and Kentucky have never met in a Final Four. Monday night should be quite an introduction.
Two of the most storied and historic college basketball programs in the country, with names like Rupp and Allen in their coaching trees, will play for a national championship, a dream game that has been decades in the making.
And if you think Kentucky’s young stars are too much for KU — even though that’s a logical thought to have — you better give Kansas credit for finding ways to win even when the odds are not in the Jayhawks’ favor. Or even when they spend parts of games playing the role of their own worst enemy.
Kansas looked lost and defeated early during Saturday night’s national semifinal game against Ohio State. KU coach Bill Self struggled to find an answer as the Jayhawks trailed by as many 13 points.
In a city that never sleeps, the Jayhawks were snoozing through the biggest game of their lives.
But Kansas never forgets to set the alarm. And when it was time to get serious, that’s exactly what KU did. The Jayhawks took control in the second half and weaved their way through some tight turns to beat Ohio State, 64-62. They will play in their second national championship game in five years against a Kentucky team that has been cast as the overwhelming favorite to win it all, but one that had its own scary moments before beating in-state rival Louisville, setting off riots amongst crazed Wildcats fans in Lexington.
Nobody in Lawrence is rioting because Kansas fans realize the best could be yet to come.
You wouldn’t think being flat for a national semifinal game would be a possibility. But it’s funny how the brain works sometimes and the Jayhawks looked like they were running through a scrimmage for the first 19-plus minutes.
Maybe it was the expansiveness of the Superdome. After a emotionally-charged first game between Kentucky and Louisville, won by the Wildcats, many in the crowd had either exited or were too spent to make much noise.
Kansas-Ohio State felt like a JV game at times, mostly because of KU’s quiet motor.
The Buckeyes opened strong, building an early lead and protecting it.
But Kansas got a two-point gift just before halftime when, after a blocked shot by Jeff Withey, Travis Releford was able to pick up the loose basketball and drive for basket just before the red lights on the backboard signaled the end of the half.
That cut Ohio State’s lead to nine after the Buckeyes had built a double-digit advantage for the final seven-plus minutes.
Kansas was in nobody’s Final Four before the season. But the Jayhawks did what they always do by winning another Big 12 regular-season championship, its eighth in a row, and spending a significant amount of the season planted in the nation’s Top 10.
So many questions needed answers and Bill Self and his team were able to give them. The Jayhawks found their spark after a demoralizing December loss to Davidson at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, a loss that kept Self mumbling for weeks.
But he used that loss as a consistent reminder of where the Jayhawks could go again without a consistent focus. Kansas started improving almost immediately, heeding Self’s message that the Jayhawks were a team without much room for error.
It’s a difficult way to get through a long season of basketball, but the rewards for Kansas were immense. Self has said this has been one of his most enjoyable years in coaching, even though it’s also been one of the most difficult.
Self was never able to build the kind of depth on this team that past KU teams have had. And to his credit, he never tried.
Now Kansas is one of the last two teams standing. For the next couple of days, you’ll be hearing a lot of people saying KU has no chance against this talented group of Kentucky players, many of whom will be drawing big checks in the not-too-distant future.
KU has only one sure-fire NBA player in Thomas Robinson, who was typically out of this world against during the win over Ohio State. On paper, it’s Kentucky’s game to lose.
Kansas, which has had to fight for everything it’s gotten, won’t back away from another scuffle.