ALL ABOUT THE BIGS
Little guys grabbed the Final Four spotlight in recent seasons. In the Superdome, the little guys are decidedly overshadowed.
Three of the past four Final Four Most Outstanding Players were guards. Kansas’ Mario Chalmers started the trend in 2008, followed by North Carolina’s Wayne Ellington in 2009 and Kemba Walker of Connecticut last season.
With forces such as Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey for Kansas opposing Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones, the attention is going big. The prime images from the regional finals and national semifinal are big men swatting shots and offensive players frustrated by long arms in their way. Withey controls games with his shot-blocking. Robinson is an All-American. Davis owns six Player of the Year honors and ESPN.com named Jones its preseason Player of the Year.
The two teams still standing protect the lane better than anybody. Davis leads the nation by averaging 4.6 blocks a game. Whithey averages 3.6 to rank fifth.
“I don’t think anyone is really coming into the hole, no player on either team,” Davis said. “It is going to be a challenge.”
All four are expected to play in the NBA. Davis, a 6-foot-10 freshman, is expected to be the top pick in this year’s draft should he leave college. He combines height, agility and a soft touch on jump hooks to form the game’s most unstoppable force.
Of course, Withey and Robinson can’t wait to try. They combined to shackle Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger in Saturday’s semifinal, holding him to 13 points on 5-of-19 shooting. Withey did most of the work on Sullinger, with Robinson able to double-team him at times.
“Anthony Davis is a great player, but he’s not Superman,” Robinson said. “We just have to be Kansas, do what we do best, keep being aggressive.”
Kentucky held Baylor, with NBA-caliber big men, to 39.1-percent shooting in the regional final. Louisville grabbed 19 offensive rebounds Saturday and managed a mere 13 points as a product because of Kentucky’s shot-blockers. The Wildcats will face a tougher challenge with Withey and Robinson.
“We know how good Thomas Robinson is,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “He’s a vicious competitor, great around the rim. He came with the top-of-the-key three. He loves driving that thing hard left and getting to the rim.”
Robinson scored 11 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in a November loss to Kentucky, 75-65 in New York. He missed 7 of his 12 shots and remembers his effort bitterly.
“I played a horrible game,” he said. “The biggest part of why we lost that game is because I was kind of selfish and tried to do everything myself.”
For Calipari, that deterrent around the rim is the best defense possible.
“If you asked me would I rather have a team with a lot of steals or a team that’s blocking lots of shots, I want a team that’s blocking a lot of shots,” he said. “You’re not going to get a whole bunch of layups. You’re going to have to jump-shoot a lot, which means your field-goal defense is going to be really good.”
Davis will get plenty of chances to block shots against KU, which won’t change its offense to avoid him in the lane.
“This team we’re playing is the best post-up team in the country,” Calipari said. “They do a better job of getting their people next to that rim and putting you in a position where they can throw it over the top, throw it inside and really jamming it.”
THIS FEELS DIFFERENT
Kansas is rarely an underdog, but the Jayhawks get that label against Kentucky, a team loaded with future NBA players.
“We’ve been dealing with that all year,” Kansas junior Travis Releford said. “Going into this game and nobody picking us, that’s something we’re used to. We don’t have any pressure, because nobody expects us to win.”
Kansas coach Bill Self feels the need to remind people his players are pretty darn talented.
“I like our guys,” he said. “We’ve got a guy (Robinson) that has kind of battled Anthony neck-and-neck for the most part for national player of the year. We’ve got guards that can play with anybody. We’ve got a shot-blocker that’s hot right now. We’ve got a lot of nice pieces.”
ON A ROLL
Kansas guard Elijah Johnson has emerged as a primary scoring option in postseason play, giving the Jayhawks a third threat to go with Robinson and guard Tyshawn Taylor. He recorded his first double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds against Ohio State and is averaging 13.4 points, second on the team, in the NCAA Tournament.
“I just felt like I had do whatever my team needed me to do to win the game,” he said. “For me, scoring the ball helped us.”
Johnson’s improvement is one reason Taylor disregards the November loss to Kentucky.
“We’re a completely different team,” he said. “We have guys that are playing now. Jeff, Travis and Elijah are stepping up huge.”
FROM THE LINE
Free-throw problems plagued Calipari’s teams in the past, as Kansas fans know. Misses helped the Jayhawks rally to beat Calipari’s Memphis team in the 2008 title game.
Kentucky is good from the line this season, making 72.3 percent and 73.6 in five NCAA games. However, the last two efforts might make Wildcat fans nervous. Kentucky made 4 of 9 against Baylor and 11 of 20 against Louisville.
“We’re a terrific free-throw shooting team,” Calipari said. “I have no issues with that whatsoever.”
CHECK THE CALENDAR
Kansas is attempting to win its fourth NCAA title, adding to ones in 1952, 1988 and 2008.
Those years share one trait with 2012 — all are leap years.
A win by either team will continue another meaningless trend. Teams with blue as a dominant color have won four straight titles and six of the past eight. Florida, which wears orange and blue, won the other two.
Allen Fieldhouse doors open at 7 tonight for fans to watch the game on videoboards. Admission is free.