Kentucky vs. Kansas: Bill Self a Fitting Final Obstacle to John Calipari's Title
It makes almost too much sense, doesn't it? That this year's Big Dance would turn Coach Cal into the Scott Pilgrim of college basketball, a man tasked with facing down the tormentors of his past in pursuit of the one thing he's lusted after for so long.
A national championship, that is, not a girlfriend with a colorful coiffure.
With this particular Kentucky team, Calipari has a golden opportunity to do just that, and has made the most of it so far. In this tournament alone, the Wildcats have vanquished three regional rivals (Western Kentucky, Indiana and Louisville) and seen star freshman and National Player of the Year Anthony Davis dominate showdowns with fellow frontcourt stars Royce White of Iowa State and Perry Jones III of Baylor.
And that's before getting into the demon-slaying that Cal's busied himself with this season. Despite losing his best players to the NBA Draft after each of his first two seasons in Lexington, Calipari's managed to reload with his biggest and best squad yet this year.
Hastily building a hard-working, selfless squad around Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Terrence Jones have allowed Cal to prove to doubters (and apocalyptic scenario enthusiasts) everywhere that it is, indeed, possible to sustain success at the highest levels of college hoops by embracing the one-and-done lottery-bound culture that currently pervades the amateur ranks.
Along the way, Cal has faced off with some of the greatest coaching minds in the country and come up roses in the end. There was Tom Crean, a man with whom Cal had many memorable battles when Crean's Marquette Golden Eagles and Cal's Memphis Tigers tangled regularly in Conference USA. Crean's Indiana Hoosiers got the better of Cal's 'Cats in Bloomington back in December, but got their comeuppance (and then some) from Big Blue in the Sweet 16.
There was Rick Pitino, whose career Cal has so closely mirrored in a professional rivalry that's as much a product of parallel circumstance as it is of actual distaste. UK got the better of Pitino's Louisville Cardinals in two Commonwealth clashes this season, the second of which pushed the Wildcats into Monday's tournament final.
And now, there's Bill Self. The current Kansas coach fits the manufactured narrative as Cal's foil better than perhaps anyone in the country. Like Cal, Self has enjoyed tremendous success at the collegiate level, though he's done it the "right" way, without pinning his hopes so squarely on the shoulders of kids who don't intend to stick around.
Not that he hasn't seen his fair share of one-and-dones in Lawrence (i.e. Xavier Henry, Brandon Rush and Josh Selby).
Self's track record, though—with eight straight Big 12 regular-season titles, two Final Four appearances and a national title in 2008—serves as one of the last bastions of hope for basketball purists who insist that sustained success requires coaches to build programs and develop players rather than usher them into the pro pipeline as quickly as possible.
Self was also the one whose Jayhawks were able to "fend off" Cal's Tigers, led by Derrick Rose, in the 2008 title game, keeping the supposedly sacred realm of champions safe from a man who's had two trips to the Final Four (that one included) vacated by the NCAA.
He and Calipari find themselves similarly opposed this time around, though Cal's 'Cats are the clear favorites this time around. UK got the better of KU at Madison Square Garden earlier this season, 75-65.
Which team will win the national title?
However, the danger of being outcoached (and losing the title and, in turn, the greater argument) remains for Calipari. If UK wins, Cal will have simply met the lofty expectations that his uber-talented team had been held over his head all season.
If the 'Cats lose, though, the onus will ultimately fall on Cal's shoulders for having let another one get away, with Self and his scrappy pack of underrated upperclassmen garnering all the glory as a strangely Davidian Goliath.
Then again, for Calipari, the sum of the season and what it might mean in victory would go far beyond the 40 minutes of basketball between his team and Self's. While some might diminish the accomplishment because of Kentucky's assortment of lottery picks, there's no denying that winning it all with a team so dependent on freshmen and sophomores will be Cal's crowning achievement.
As for besting Self in a title-game rematch? Exorcising that ghost would be the icing on a championship-caliber cake, one that everyone in Big Blue Nation can enjoy, but the sweetness of which only Cal can truly appreciate.
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