New Orleans — Cartoonists would sketch slingshots in the hands of the Kansas University players, all aimed at the giant of college basketball, Anthony Davis. He plays for Kentucky, the winningest program of all-time.
It makes for a nice story line. It also doesn’t fit anymore. It did in November, when nobody quite knew what to make of a KU team that had lost all four starters, including two NBA lottery picks, plus a reserve chosen in the second round.
Not now. Not with Kansas feeling so confident heading into tonight’s national-title showdown in the Superdome.
Sure, Davis, to this point, has been the best player in country, as evidenced by his trophy case stuffed with national-player-of-the-year hardware. But Thomas Robinson was next best and was the only player who was a unanimous first-team All-American choice. And he plays for the second-winningest program in history.
Las Vegas has made Kansas 61⁄2-point underdogs. On paper, it makes sense.
“Yeah, they probably should,” Kansas coach Bill Self said of the Wildcats’ being portrayed as the favorites. “But I’ve never known a game to be played on paper.”
Sunday afternoon, Robinson already sported that steely eyed warrior look he brings into games.
“I think we realized a long time ago that we could play with anybody,” Robinson said.
Added Tyshawn Taylor, who is 0-for-20 shooting threes this tournament while directing a team that is 5-0: “Them being the best team in the country all year, that’s good. But, I mean, it comes down to one game.”
Kansas has a healthy respect for its opponent, but the self-esteem of this team never has been higher.
“Anthony Davis is a great player, but he’s not Superman,” Robinson said. “We just have to be Kansas, do what we do best, keep being aggressive. He is a good player, but we’re not going to change anything we do. Just stick to the program.”
Coaches forever talk about how they never look at anything but the next game, but they’re only human. They play the bracket out in their minds, too.
“I dreamed about it as soon as I saw the brackets,” Self said of the match-up. “You look at the brackets. You look at the region. You say, ‘OK, first game, who do we have to beat to get to the Sweet 16? Who is the potential match-up? How do we match up?’ You look at your region. I did look. I said, ‘How cool would it be to play Kentucky in the finals?’”
Very cool. It’s never happened. The schools Self called “the bluest of the blue bloods” never have met in the title game.
When Self went through the match-ups, he didn’t sound intimidated or pessimistic. He sounded confident.
Self on Taylor vs. Marquis Teague, a 6-foot-2 freshman from Indianapolis: “Teague is explosive as anybody. That would be a great match-up with Taylor.”
On Elijah Johnson vs. Doron Lamb, a 6-4 sophomore from Queens, N.Y.: “Great match-up. They’re similar guys. Both guys can get on a roll.”
On Travis Releford vs. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist: “Pretty interesting deal. Gilchrist is obviously a better scorer and can post and do some things, but Travis is pretty good, too. He kind of knows his role. He’s strong for his size. He’s good at that.”
On Robinson vs. 6-9 sophomore Terrence Jones from Portland: “Heck of a match-up.”
On Withey vs. Davis, a 6-10 freshman from Chicago: “Great match-up.”
“One difficult match-up is (Darius) Miller off the bench,” Self said of the 6-8 senior from Maysville, Ky. “He can be their leading scorer. That’s something we probably can’t match. I also think this: (Conner) Teahan can make shots.”
That was on-paper talk about the individuals participating in the game, not the sum of the parts, which forms a team.
“It will be interesting, very interesting,” Self said. “I don’t think it’s about match-ups. I think it’s about team concepts, more so than match-ups.”
According to the oddsmakers, Kentucky’s 61⁄2 points better, so in a way, Kansas already is behind, and that’s when the Jayhawks play their best basketball. This game has the feel of one that will be close as the college basketball season nears its final seconds.