NEW ORLEANS -- On Sunday, Bill Self came right out and admitted it: When he first saw the 2012 NCAA tournament bracket, he dreamed of Monday night.
"I dreamed about it as soon as I saw the brackets," Kansas' coach said. "You look at your region, you say, 'OK, first game, who do we have to beat to get to the Sweet 16,' 'Who is a potential matchup,' 'How do we match up?'
"I did look. I said: 'How cool would it be to play Kentucky in the finals?'"
The answer, now that it's real: Very, very cool. The other answer, now that it's real: Very, very difficult.
As good as Kansas is, with experienced guard play and surefire All-American power forward Thomas Robinson and a defense ranked among the nation's best, to win the national title it will have to take down a team Self believes to be among the best we've seen in years. This game is infused with storylines -- from the two winningest programs in college hoops to the personal Self-Calipari rematch of the 2008 national title to the Davis-Robinson matchup and on down the line -- but those storylines serve only as a function of what happens when two basketball teams take the court for 40 minutes Monday night.
Self and his players made another admission Sunday: They know they're the underdog. From a sheer talent standpoint, Kentucky is -- and should be -- the favorite. But games aren't played on paper, and Kansas has its own fair share of talent.
"They got to bleed just like we bleed," guard Tyshawn Taylor said. "Everything will be proved Monday night."
So, how do the Jayhawks match up? Let's dig in.
(Note: To read my Kentucky lineup breakdown, click here. Efficiency stats courtesy of kenpom.com; scouting data courtesy of Synergy Sports Technologies.)
Tyshawn Taylor, guard: Taylor is the second-most important player on his team. His usage rate of 27.6 percent is second only to Robinson's 29.6, and the Jayhawks' lack of depth -- with one-dimensional shooter and spot defender Conner Teahan as Self's only reserve guard -- has made him an utterly indispensable presence who has to remain on the floor for Kansas to be remotely effective on the offensive end. Taylor plays a special role on this team. He not only runs the break and initiates Kansas' offense, but he also has been charged with a major scoring load -- like his usage rate, Taylor's shot percentage of 26.3 percent is second only to Robinson's 29.9; no other Jayhawk shoots even 20 percent of available shots.
But Taylor's most important role in this tournament hasn't been scoring, and it hasn't been shooting. Indeed, the Jayhawks have progressed to the title game despite Taylor's 0-for-20 mark from beyond the arc and mostly pedestrian shooting performances in the past four games. (Taylor was 10-of-19 in the Elite Eight win over North Carolina; in Kansas' other three wins, he was just 9-for-36.) No, Taylor's biggest contributions have been defense and leadership. Taylor's quick-fire on-the-ball defense sets the tone for the Jayhawks on the defensive end, where they are, as a team, at their best. And his leadership -- despite the occasional classic Taylorian heat-check shot, which we saw in the second half against UNC -- has been one of this team's best traits. It will have to show up again Monday night in the biggest game of his up-and-down, now-redemptive career.
Elijah Johnson, guard: Taylor has been able to struggle from long range in the postseason without hurting Kansas' chances for one big reason. That reason's name is Elijah Johnson. Johnson's emergence from a solid rotation guard in 2011 to an 80.1 minutes percentage stalwart in 2012 is one of the main reasons this Kansas team didn't experience a drop-off despite its lack of depth and the lack of freshman shooting guard Ben McLemore (whom we've forgotten about; imagine if this team had McLemore, ruled ineligible as a partial qualifier before the season began, to come off the bench). Johnson's role, beyond serving as an occasional ball handler and combo guard alongside Taylor, is spot-up shooting.
According to Synergy Sports Technologies scouting data, 33.7 percent of Johnson's possessions this season have come on spot-up shots, on which he has scored 1.123 points per trip. The next-most frequent scoring categories are transition plays and "miscellaneous," which is as good an indicator as any that when Kansas is in the half court, it looks to Johnson to knock down big outside shots. He is making 43.4 percent of those 3s in the tournament.
Johnson's shooting will have to be key again Monday night. Kentucky seems likely to double-team Robinson when he touches the ball on the low block -- that's what it did in November, and it worked, and Calipari will be loath to see Robinson operating solo (and risking foul trouble) on either Anthony Davis or Terrence Jones -- and no KU player is better at working off those double-teams, relocating to space and knocking down the open look.
Travis Releford, guard: Releford doesn't shoot the ball often. His usage rate and shot percentage are just 14.1 and 14.4 percent, respectively. But when does shoot, he's efficient: Releford's offensive rating is a sterling 117.8, with an effective field goal percentage of 55.3. He doesn't turn the ball over often, either. (His turnover rate is a tidy 13.6 percent.) Indeed, Releford picks and chooses his spots, which has made him an unsung glue guy extraordinaire and the perfect complement to Robinson and the rest of this lineup at the small forward spot. On defense, the role remains the same.
Releford's greatest defensive strength doesn't always show up on the score sheet: He keeps everything in front of him. According to Synergy, Releford has allowed just .44 points per possession on isolations and just .476 points per trip on drives in 2012. He will give up the jump shot and the occasional open 3 (where his Synergy breakdown is less complimentary) to ensure he doesn't let an opposing guard into the lane.
It's safe to assume Releford will be tasked with guarding Kentucky small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a player who eschews jump shots in favor of penetration and transition run-outs. It may be the biggest and most important defensive challenge of Releford's career, but at least he has the right defensive skill set to handle it.
Thomas Robinson, forward: It's no secret Robinson has made himself a lot of potential NBA money in his junior season. In the matter of a year, he's gone from 2011's talented but raw rebounding machine to the potential lottery pick who dominated summer skills camps to a surefire top-five selection and potential franchise NBA power forward. In the process, he's lifted his team to the precipice of an unlikely national title. How so? By learning how to play a classic power forward style as quickly as humanly possible.
Last season, Robinson did little more than crash the boards. He was very good at this, but he wasn't going to break the Morris twins' stranglehold on starters' minutes without the kind of polish and off-ball ability Self's hi-lo offense requires. This season, Robinson has become all that and more. It didn't start right away -- he struggled mightily in his first meeting with Kentucky, mostly because he stubbornly chose to attack double-teams and multiple defenders in lieu of patience and self-control. What's more, he didn't pose much of a threat outside of five to 10 feet. He does now, and then some.
Saturday's game against Ohio State was emblematic of Robinson's all-around improvement. It wasn't so much the makes and misses but the position Robinson was able to create in the context of Kansas' trademark ball movement on the perimeter. Robinson, like Marcus Morris and Cole Aldrich before him, loves to set up shop on one block and work for traditional position. When he can't get it, he'll spin or pivot inside, pinning his defender on his front hip. Deshaun Thomas found himself in this position on three different occasions Saturday night, all of which resulted in lob entries and easy baskets around the rim.
When the post is defended well, Robinson will kick the ball out top and follow it, ready to set a screen. T-Rob has added a 15-foot jumper to his game, like the one he hit early in the first half -- when he passed out of a double-team, set a chase screen on Taylor and knocked down an elbow jumper overJared Sullinger. He also sets early ball screens in Kansas' secondary break. That's the play type that resulted in Robinson's monster, scream-worthy dunk with 15:43 remaining, a classic pick-and-roll with a classic finish. Robinson was merely average on these pick-and-roll plays throughout the season. In the NCAA tournament, they've become his most efficient play type.
These versatile abilities -- plus a secondary-break jumper, patience against double-teams and rotating defenders, and the ability to pass out of trouble -- make him a defensive nightmare for John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats. If Davis is guarding him, Robinson can help stretch the floor on the screen-and-roll. If Jones has the cover, he can use strength and post position to find easy baskets on the low block.
It won't be easy. Davis' sheer length erases so much of the middle area of the floor. But if Kansas has a chance Monday night, it will be because its remarkably improved power forward showcases everything he's learned in his breakout junior season.
Jeff Withey, center: Withey is hardly a mystery. His best and most important skill is obvious to see and document: He blocks shots. He blocks shots as well as, or better than, any other player in the country. On Saturday night, Self told the media he thought Davis was the best shot-blocker in college basketball but that Withey was second best. He may be right. But the numbers say something slightly different: Davis' block percentage of 13.95 ranked No. 3 in the country this season. Withey's 15.1 percent mark was the nation's best.
But whomever you choose as your top block artiste (and if you choose Davis, you'll hear no argument from me), it's clear that both teams have a game-changing force protecting the rim. Withey's long arms not only help to neutralize opposing centers -- they made Sullinger's life utterly miserable Saturday night -- they also create turnovers and run-outs, and they also make Robinson's life immensely easier. Robinson doesn't have to work as hard on the defensive end, so he can focus more on offense, and he is allowed to float more, which has helped him haul in a higher percentage of available defensive rebounds (30.9 percent) than anyone else in the country this season.
Withey isn't a major offensive force, but when he does post up -- which happened on 93 possessions this season -- he's effective (1.011 points per possession). But really, Withey's calling card is his defense, and defense is the reason these Jayhawks are one of only two teams to make it to this April finale. With Davis lined up across from him, Withey's length has never been more crucial to the Jayhawks' chances.
Reserves: Conner Teahan, Kevin Young: Teahan has the reputation of a spot shooter in his limited bench minutes, but he's arguably been more effective as a defender. Meanwhile, Young has been an effective junior forward transfer from LMU. He isn't needed often -- his primary role, like Teahan's, is to give one of the starters a quick blow during low-leverage situations -- but when he has been called upon in the postseason, he's delivered. Young is averaging 5.2 rebounds per game in just 15.2 minutes per game in the NCAA tournament. The ability to stay tough on on the glass with Robinson or Withey out of the game is one of the many sneaky reasons Kansas is playing for the national title Monday night.
Game plan: The Jayhawks have made a habit of remarkable second-half defensive turnarounds in their past four NCAA tournament games. In the first half of their past four games, Kansas has allowed an average of 37.5 points on 49.1 percent shooting and 51.2 percent from beyond the arc. In the second half -- and no game was a better indicator of this than the comeback win over Ohio State -- those opponents' numbers fell to 24.0 points, 24.2 percent shooting and just 18.4 percent from 3-point range.
Effective though it's been, Purdue, NC State, UNC and Ohio State are not the Kentucky Wildcats. The Jayhawks can't afford to spend their first half allowing Kentucky to score at will. They must bring the lockdown defensive toughness from the very outset, and they must maintain it for all 40 minutes. Withey will have to protect the rim against Davis as well as he has against shorter, less athletic players all season; Robinson will have to lock down on Jones; Releford will have to keep Kidd-Gilchrist from getting into the lane; and Taylor and Johnson will have to win matchups with the less experienced but more talented UK duo of Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb. And even then, Kansas will be the underdog.
"They're one of the better teams that we've had in college basketball from a pure talent standpoint," Self said of Kentucky. "They've got six pros. Three of them are probably lottery picks. They're really, really talented. But the thing is, I like our guys. I think we're talented, too.
"They're good, really good. But this time of year, with one game left, who would you be playing if they weren't really good?"