NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - When Kentucky faces Kansas in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) title game on Monday in the Superdome all eyes should be focused squarely in the paint.
There will be elbows flying, jump hooks, jaw-dropping blocks and an overall level of physical play rarely seen in the college game.
Few big men, if any, combine intensity with gracefulness like Kentucky’s 6-foot-10 freshman sensation Anthony Davis and Kansas’s muscular junior power forward Thomas Robinson.
”We know how good Thomas Robinson is,“ said Kentucky coach John Calipari. ”We went against him in New York. He is as good as they get. He’s a vicious competitor, great around the rim.
“Loves driving that thing hard left and getting to the rim. He has become a better handler and passer, rebounds. Oh, we know how good he is.”
Robinson said many of the same things about Davis, the consensus player of the year in college basketball who could easily take his talents to the National Basketball Association (NBA) next year.
But, he added, Davis would not alter the Jayhawks’ game plan.
“Anthony Davis is a great player, but he’s not Superman,” he told reporters Sunday. “We just have to be Kansas, do what we do best, keep being aggressive. We’re not going to change anything we do. Just going to stick to the program.”
Davis said he is looking forward to the match-up against the 6-foot-10, 240-pound Robinson, who averages 17.7 points and 11.7 rebounds.
”We know he’s a great player,“ said Davis. ”Rebounds the ball, finishes with authority. Probably one of the best players that we’re going to face this year.
“It’s going to be a great challenge for me, so I just can’t wait to play.”
Throw in the game’s other talented big men, like Kentucky’s Terrence Jones and the Jayhawks’ Jeff Withey, who has 136 blocks this year, and you have some real estate that could be hazardous for any guard who dares to drive to the hoop.
Kansas coach Bill Self won the title in 2008 when his Jayhawks defeated a Calipari-coached Memphis team 75-68 in overtime after the Tigers missed four of their final five free throws late in regulation.
When asked what he learned from that game, Calipari, who has made three prior Final Four appearances but is still looking for his first NCAA title, said with a laugh: “Make free throws, that’s what I learned.”
Kentucky (37-2), the 68-team tournament’s top overall seed, has encountered little resistance in reaching the title game while Kansas has needed to draw on a few miracles along the way.
The Wildcats beat Louisville 69-61 in the semi-finals on Saturday, while Kansas (32-6) trailed virtually the entire game before pulling out a 64-62 victory over Ohio State.
”They’re finding a way on the biggest stage,“ Self said of his team. ”You look at our last four tournament games, Purdue has us down and out, N.C. State, a one possession game, Carolina is a one possession game. Last night Ohio State had us down and out.
“It’s remarkable to me to see how much these guys have matured, grown, trust each other. It’s been a blast to watch from the sidelines.”
Kentucky beat the Wildcats, 75-65, at New York’s Madison Square Garden in the second game of the season and has been the nation’s best team with a handful of players ultimately headed to the NBA.
Self admitted that Kentucky, at least on paper, deserves to be favored. Bookmakers list the Wildcats about a seven-point choice to win their first national title since 1998.
”Kentucky’s terrific,“ he said. ”They’ve been the best team in the country basically from start to finish with maybe the exception of a week here or a week there.
“It’s just one of those things that you don’t play the games on paper... Just let it go, hang out and see what happens.”
Reporting by Steve Ginsburg; Editing by Frank Pingue