Kirschman: Kansas against Kentucky just as intriguing as an underdog

By Lauren Kirschman

Everybody loves an underdog.

The NCAA Tournament featured a few upsets this year, like No. 15… Everybody loves an underdog.

The NCAA Tournament featured a few upsets this year, like No. 15 seed Norfolk State over over No. 2 seed Missouri and No. 13 seed Ohio advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. The unexpected run by a double-digit seed is one the greatest joys of the NCAA Tournament.

But this year’s Final Four didn’t have a Virigina Commonwealth University.

Instead, No. 1 seed Kentucky, No. 2 seed Kansas, No. 2 seed Ohio State and No. 4 seed Louisville made it to New Orleans. Tonight, the national title game will feature two of the most successful programs in the country: Kentucky and Kansas.

They are the two winningest programs in college basketball history. Kentucky has 2,052 wins. Kansas has 2,038. Kentucky is second all-time with seven national championships, while Kansas is tied for fifth with three.

Kentucky — a team filled with future NBA talent — has Anthony Davis, the Associated Press’ Player of the Year.

Kansas? They have the runner-up in Thomas Robinson, the player who lost two grandparents and his mother within a month of each other last season. His story touched the nation as he returned to the court the day after his mother’s death. This year, he has dominated play as one of the top players in the Big 12 and gained plenty of supporters from across the country along the way.

The two teams already met once this season: a 75-65 win for Kentucky in Madison Square Garden in November. But there’s reason for revenge on the other side, too.

In 2008, Kansas head coach Bill Self defeated Memphis in the national championship game. At the time, current Kentucky head coach John Calipari was the Tigers’ head coach.

The title game might not have a true underdog, but it does have a team that wasn’t expected to get there. Kansas — a No. 1 seed in the 2011 NCAA Tournament — lost four starters from a team that advanced to the Elite Eight.

While the Jayhawks started the season ranked in the top 15, they weren’t expected to be one of the last two teams standing.

Even though Kentucky lost its entire starting lineup from last season, the Wildcats have been the favorite to win the national title since the season started. Calipari, known for his ability to build starting lineups full of one-and-done NBA lottery picks, simply reloaded with the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the country.

“[Kentucky is] the best team in the country, hands down, from day one,” Self told ESPN. “They’re terrific. They’re great. They’ve got guys who can make plays that you can’t coach. They got pros, all that stuff. But I think we’ve got good players, too.”

Whether they have enough good players to compete with the Wildcats remains to be seen, but fans will get to see the nation’s top two players on the same court for the second time this season. In the first game, Davis finished with 14 points, seven blocks and six rebounds in Kentucky’s win.

Robinson fouled out. He left the court with 11 points and 12 rebounds, but he shot just 5-12 from the field.

“It was my first big test on a big stage, and I didn’t handle it well,” Robinson told Sports Illustrated. “I took the traps bad; my mentality was as if I was out there by myself.”

Robinson definitely recovered. He was named a first team All-American along with Davis and scored a team-high 19 points in the Jayhawks’ Final Four match-up with Ohio State.

He’s used to the national stage now, and he’s a better player for it. Kansas’ leading scorer and the rest of the Jayhawks won’t be intimidated by Kentucky’s star-studded squad, but they might have to play a near perfect game to beat them.

And as rival Louisville learned, that might not even be enough.

Kentucky didn’t play well in its Final Four game against in-state rival Louisvile. The Cardinals outrebounded Kentucky. They forced more turnovers. The Wildcats got Louisville’s best shot with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — Kentucky’s best player other than Davis — playing just six minutes in the first half.

The game was tied with less than 10 minutes remaining, but Kentucky still won by eight points behind 18 points and 14 rebounds from Davis.

So no, this year’s Final Four doesn’t have an underdog. The national championship won’t either.

But it will feature programs with great basketball traditions, two players who performed better than anyone else in the country this season and the most passionate fanbases in the country.

I love the underdog, too.

But I’ll take this.