NEW ORLEANS — Jayhawks or Wildcats, take your pick. Either can make a case for this being "their" year.
For Kansas, a season that started with low expectations keeps getting better, filled with high-wire comebacks and a feeling that this was meant to be.
For Kentucky, a cadre of NBA-caliber players have had the word "champion" practically imprinted on their chests since they gathered at Rupp Arena for the season's first practice.
They meet tonight for the NCAA championship, a history-filled matchup between the winningest programs in history. This is the one-and-dones at Kentucky vs. juniors and seniors at Kansas; Anthony Davis vs. Thomas Robinson in a frontcourt battle of All-Americans; and a title game coaching rematch between John Calipari and Bill Self.
Kentucky (37-2), in search of its eighth national title but first since 1998, has five, maybe six players who will be playing in the NBA soon. Most are freshmen and sophomores. None are better than Davis, the 6-foot-10 freshman who had 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks in Saturday's 69-61 win over Louisville in the semifinals.
All season and all tournament, Calipari has not so much defended as explained his philosophy, which is to go after the best players and not demand they graduate, only that they play team basketball for whatever amount of time they spend in the Commonwealth.
"I don't like the rules," Calipari said. "I want Anthony to come back and be my point guard next year. It's really what I want. There's only two solutions to it. Either I can recruit players who are not as good as the players I'm recruiting or I can try to convince guys who should leave to stay for me."
Calipari is a win away from the first national title of his controversial career, one that includes two Final Four appearances that were vacated. Oddsmakers have Kentucky as a 6.5-point favorite to seal the deal this year against Kansas.
"Doesn't bother us," Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor said. "They've got high expectations, and they had a great year so the expectations should be high. What we think, though, is that we match up with them well. We feel confident going into this game."
The Jayhawks (32-6) get more reinforcement every game that anything is possible.
Saturday, they overcame a 13-point deficit against Ohio State. Before that in the tournament, they won close ones against Purdue, North Carolina State and North Carolina. They were comeback kids in the regular season, as well, one that began with low expectations for a roster that got hit hard by graduation and other departures, then fell to 7-3 after an ugly, unexpected home loss to Davidson.
"I was a little frustrated because I thought that we were underachieving, underperforming," Self said.
Somewhere in that mess, however, he saw the potential.
Much of it shined through thanks to the development of Robinson, a role player his first two years. He blossomed when he got regular playing time this season and is averaging 17.7 points and 11.7 rebounds.
"We know how good Thomas Robinson is," Calipari said. "We all up here know. We went against him in New York. He is as good as they get. He's a vicious competitor, great around a rim, expanded his game."