Sunday, February 25, 2018
Sports

Kansas needs a hero to have chance to beat Kentucky in NCAA title game

NEW ORLEANS

Mario?

Paging Mario Chalmers.

Mario Chalmers, would you please pick up the red courtesy telephone?

At this point, Kansas needs a hero. It needs a sharpshooter to fire his way into legendary status. It needs a dragon slayer to fell the beast in what seems to be an unwinnable game. It needs a legend-maker such as Chalmers to hit another shot from the top of another key.

Again.

Say this for the Jayhawks. They ought to recognize the neighborhood. It was only four years ago when Kansas was an underdog in another championship game, against another team coached by John Calipari (Memphis), against another team with a fabulous freshman (Derrick Rose).

That was before Chalmers changed everything, before he took a handoff from his point guard as he circled to his left, before he launched a high, arcing jump shot that has been replayed, oh, about 70 trillion times in the state of Kansas. That shot tied the score with 2.9 seconds to go, and an overtime later, Kansas had a national title, and Calipari was trying to explain what happened on the way to second place.

Just a guess, but here's an idea of what the Jayhawks' game plan will be going into tonight's game against Kentucky and Calipari:

"Ditto."

Let's face it: Calipari's team is once again a heavy favorite against Kansas. Even Calipari says he expects his team will have as many as six No. 1 draft picks, and Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist may go 1-2 at the top of the round. Who wouldn't make the Wildcats the favorite?

"They're terrific," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "They've been the best team in the country from start to finish with maybe the exception of a week here or a week there. They're one of the better teams we've had in college basketball from a pure talent standpoint. They're really, really, really talented.

"But you know, I like our guys. I think we're talented, too. We've got a guy (Thomas Robinson) that has kind of battled Davis neck and neck for national player of the year. We've got guards who can play with anyone. We've got a shot-blocker (Jeff Withey) that's hot right now. We've got a lot of nice pieces, too."

Why wouldn't they? Like Kentucky, Kansas is one of the storied basketball programs in the NCAA. Consider: The two schools are the winningest in Division I with a combined 4,159 victories. They have combined for 29 Final Fours and 106 conference titles. These are the sons of Phog Allen vs. the sons of Adolph Rupp.

That said, this year's Jayhawks haven't had the same wow factor as the Wildcats. In this tournament run, they beat Purdue by three, North Carolina State by three and Ohio State by two. They have not looked like a team on a mission, the way Kentucky has. They have not dropped jaws with their sheer athleticism, the way Kentucky has.

Because of that, the impression is that Kentucky is a larger favorite than it should be. Kansas is an underdog, but not a prohibitive one.

"I don't think this is one of those games, whether it be the N.C. State great win, or Villanova playing perfect," Self said. "We're going to have to play well. But you should have to play well to have a chance to win it."

So what does Kansas have to do to win?

First, it has to limit Davis' impact. The 6-foot-10 freshman doesn't score nearly as much as some players-of-the-year have, but his impact on a game is so obvious that Louisville's Rick Pitino compares him to Bill Russell. When Davis showed up for interviews Sunday, he had a spare shirt draped over his shoulders like a cape. Funny, but it didn't look out of place.

In Robinson, however, the Jayhawks have a force of their own inside. Self says that if Davis is the best shot-blocker in the country, Robinson is second. And with 7-footer Withey to help out, Robinson can stay out of foul trouble.

Second, it has to slow down Kentucky's transition game. With guards Elijah Johnson and Tyshawn Taylor, the Jayhawks have a shot at doing that, too. But Kansas also has to avoid those mini-bursts of scoring that the Wildcats often have, the kind they had in the second half of this season's November meeting to break a tie and run away with a 75-65 victory over KU in New York.

Third, it needs big plays at big times. Which, of course, brings us back to Chalmers and the shot that spoiled Calipari's previous chance at a championship. (Although the NCAA later stripped Memphis of that title run, which means the Tigers wouldn't have kept the trophy anyway.)

"I have never looked at that tape," Calipari said. "That tape was flung out the door of the bus as we were going to the plane. I have never looked at it, nor will I. I'm moving on."

So is there a Chalmers de jour? Robinson? Maybe. Johnson? Maybe. And maybe Taylor, the guard who spent much of his youth in Clearwater. After all, Taylor led the Jayhawks in 3-pointers this season.

The problem? Taylor seems to have something in his eye lately. He has missed all 20 of his 3-pointers this tournament, and lifetime, he has missed all 20 of his 3-pointers in a dome. In his career, he is only 3-of-40 shooting 3s in the tournament. So what happens if the Jayhawks are down three with 2.9 seconds to go and Taylor is open?

"I'm shooting it," he said, grinning. "I'm due."

After all, if Kansas is going to win, someone has to be the star. Someone has to make a play. Someone has to ruin Calipari's day.

Tonight, auditions will be held.

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