Monday, April 2, 2012

the championship game prediction

Ten years ago, “The Voice of Reason” and I set out on a journey on a non-descript Saturday in mid-March.  The destination?  St. Louis, Missouri.  The reason for driving four hours on a rainy Saturday in mid-March?  Because there was a team in need of some support.

The 2002 Jayhawks were probably Roy’s most underrated team.  A team that lost three games prior to the Final Four, two of them to Sweet 16 and beyond participants (at UCLA, OU in Kemper Arena).  Undefeated in conference play.  The team that ended Arizona’s nearly two decade long non-conference winning streak at the McHale Center.  A team with four future pros on the roster – Drew Gooden, Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich, and Wayne Simien, to say nothing of the biggest man-crush I’ve ever had on a Jayhawk, Jeff Boschee.  Throw in Mikey Lee, Aaron Miles, and Keith Langford, and that’s one helluva eight man rotation.

As you would expect a team that goes undefeated in a power six conference to receive, KU was given the one seed in the Midwest Region, a St. Louis / Madison path that promised a huge home court advantage (at least initially – Illinois awaited us if we reached the Sweet 16).  And reaching the Sweet 16 was the point of that day’s journey.

Two days prior, KU had opened its quest for its first Final Four berth in a decade by facing the Crusaders of Holy Cross.  Noone expected a competitive contest.  Noone anticipated what would unfold over the next two hours, as Holy Cross actually led at the under four timeout.  Not only is a one seed in legitimate danger of losing in the opening round for the first time, but all-everything guard Kirk Hinrich hasn’t played since the opening minutes due to a horrendous ankle sprain that everyone – and I mean everyone – expected to keep him out of the second round matchup against Stanford.

Now, I can probably hear you saying “Stanford?  So what?  They’re beatable”.  Uuh, this Stanford team was damned good.  They were a one seed the prior season, and returned most of the core of that team – future pros Curtis Borchard, Josh Childress, and the man we all feared, Casey Jacobsen.

Entering that Saturday, there was very serious doubt KU could survive and advance.

We scalped a couple tickets upon arrival, headed down to the Landing for a few cold ones, and eventually headed in.  Adding to the drama was that KU went last, so we had to sit through Kentucky and Tulsa first (a highly entertaining game that Kentucky won in overtime).

Finally, the moment arrives.  The warmups begin and … Good God, that’s Kirk Hinrich’s music!  Yes, Hinrich was warming up!  Suddenly, the mood turned from fear … to confidence.

And it wasn’t just in the stands that the confidence was felt.  I’ve said this before, that this wasn’t my favorite game from that season (obliterating Oregon in the Elite 8 was much more enjoyable, right down to the “We Aren’t Gonna Take It Anymore” KU Band finale) … but the first 92 seconds of this game, was as close to perfection as a team will ever come.  Boschee drilled a three to open the festivities.  A couple Gooden dunks.  Another Boschee three.  And then, before Stanford even knew what hit them, Hinrich for three … BANGO!  15-0 Kansas 92 seconds in.

Ballgame.  I still shake my head thinking about those 92 seconds sometimes.  It’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen at a basketball game.  KU could do nothing wrong.  Stanford could do nothing right.  Those of us who’d driven four hours because we thought the crowd was going to have to will a wounded duck to victory, instead got to spend 38 minutes enjoying the hell out of a team that was destined for great things (namely, the Final Four to end that season, the National Title game the following season, the Elite Eight running on fumes two years later).

I mention this … because I still have to offer up an official prediction for tonight’s contest, and this is my prediction.  This game tonight is not going to be what everyone expects.

It’s going to be Stanford all over again.  A unified, fired up Jayhawks team with its back to the wall, with the world doubting it’s able to win, is going to open strong, and ultimately defeat Kentucky tonight.

Tyshawn Taylor is currently 0 for 20 from three land in this tournament.  Riddle me this, Hawks fans: do you REALLY think he’s going to go 0 for 4, 0 for 5, 0 for anything, tonight from behind the arc?  Or is he long overdue for a 4 for 6 from three, 22 point, relatively turnover free outing?  (The good Tyshawn, if you will).  Do you REALLY think T-Rob is going to miss SEVEN shots from inside of three feet, as he did on Saturday night?  Or do you think, with a championship and all that entitles on the line, instead of trying to hook the shot in, he’ll pound the rim and slam the bastard home?

And most of all – with 48 hours to prepare for an opponent he’s already faced this season, do you REALLY think Bill Self, who has delivered the performance of a LIFETIME this entire season, do you REALLY think he’s NOT going to come up for an answer for Kentucky?

We got down big early to Purdue.  Self figured out how to stop them.  NC State was close the whole way, but in the end, it was Self’s defensive genius that found a way to win.  UNC was a trackmeet for a half, tied at 47.  The Heels scored not even HALF that total in the second half (22) thanks to a gimmick “why not” defense known as the triangle and two that so confused the Tar Heels, Ol’ Roy didn’t even know what defense we were in.

And then Saturday night, his masterpiece.  Clark Kellogg kept hammering it home in the first half (completely accurately, by the way) – if KU can’t run, they can’t score.  Ohio State had us in the half-court game, unable to press, unable to generate offense.  Somehow in the second half, KU was flying down the court, constantly winning the battle for loose balls, for rebounds, finding a way to get on the break.  Do you really think Thad Motta, a genius coach in his own right, took a stupid pill at halftime? 

Or is Bill Self really that good?

I’m betting on the latter.  I’m betting on Tyshawn Taylor ending his career on the highest note possible, on T-Rob leaving nothing on the floor for his likely final time sporting the Crimson and the Blue.

But most of all, I’m betting tonight’s MVP will be the little walk-on that could.  Conner Teahan.  The hero of the Mizzou comeback.  I mean, if KU can win THAT game, as fired up as both sides were, trailing by 19 at home with under 11 to play, do you REALLY think they can’t beat Kentucky?

This team has yet to play a complete game in this tournament.  It’s time.  As the Royals have been saying all off-season, “it’s our time”.  Hell yes it is.  Yes, I’m biased.  Yes, I’m a homer.  But sometimes, the team you root for, is the team of destiny.  Sometimes, the team you love, just wants it more.  They play harder, they force the issue, they just find a way to win.

In the words of the Lost Trailers, “you can call me a dreamer, say I’m a little naïve … but I believe in the underdog”.  By the time this game is over, the first 92 seconds of Stanford, the entire 40 minutes against Oregon (still my favorite KU game of all time, and I’m fully aware it was not for a championship), the last 1:54 against Memphis, the euphoria of Danny Manning hitting both free throws against OU, the 35 point halftime lead in the Final Four against Marquette … this one might top them all.  Jayhawks 81, Wildcats 71.

(jim nantz voice) Here's to you, Mr. Robinson!  

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