OK, it's time: Kentucky vs. Kansas for the NCAA title

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OK, it's time: Kentucky vs. Kansas for the NCAA title

From Comcast SportsNet
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Jayhawks or Wildcats, take your pick. Either can make a case for this being "their" year. For Kansas, a season that started with low expectations keeps getting better, filled with high-wire comebacks and an inescapable feeling that this was simply meant to be. For Kentucky, a cadre of NBA-caliber players have had the word "champion" practically imprinted on their chests since they gathered at Rupp Arena for the season's first practice. They meet Monday for the NCAA championship, a history-filled matchup between the two winningest programs in college basketball history. This is the one-and-dones at Kentucky vs. juniors and seniors at Kansas; Anthony Davis vs. Thomas Robinson in a front-court battle of All-Americans; a title-game coaching rematch between John Calipari and Bill Self; a high-stakes meeting between one team whose founder invented the game and another that likes to claim its legendary coach perfected it. Kentucky (37-2), in search of its eighth national title but its first since 1998, has five, maybe six, players who will be playing in the NBA soon. Most are freshmen and sophomores. None are better than Davis, the 6-foot-10 freshman who had 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks in Kentucky's 69-61 win over Louisville in the semifinals. "Anthony Davis is a great player, but he's not Superman," Self said, clearly ignoring the fact that, only moments earlier, Davis had been walking around the Superdome with his practice jersey slung across his shoulders like a cape. As he has all year and all tournament, Calipari has not so much defended as explained his coaching philosophy, which is to go after the very best players and not demand they graduate, but only that they play team basketball for whatever amount of time they spend in the Commonwealth. "I don't like the rules," Calipari said. "I want Anthony to come back and be my point guard next year. It's really what I want. There's only two solutions to it. Either I can recruit players who are not as good as the players I'm recruiting or I can try to convince guys who should leave to stay for me." He won't do either. By pulling no punches, the coach finds himself working with the most talent -- Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are likely lottery picks, while Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb are among the others with first-round potential. Calipari is a win away from the first national title of a stormy and controversial career, one that began as a volunteer assistant at Kansas. His first two trips to the Final Four have been vacated because of NCAA violations. Though his 2008 trip with Memphis is no longer in the record books, it's clearly emblazoned in his memory. That team, led by Derrick Rose, had one essential flaw -- bad free-throw shooting -- and the coach dismissed it every time he was asked about it in the days and weeks leading to his final against Self and the Jayhawks. The Tigers missed four free throws down the stretch and blew a nine-point lead in what turned into an overtime loss that gave Kansas its third NCAA title. Lessons learned? Well, Calipari does make his team run more after bad free-throw shooting nights. But regrets? Not many. "At the end of the day, we had a nine-point lead," he said. "I have to figure something out. Go shoot the free throws myself, do something to get us out of that gym and I didn't." A year later, Cal was out of Memphis and putting the pieces in place for his run at Kentucky. It began with a trip to the Elite Eight, continued last year with a spot in the Final Four and oddsmakers have Kentucky as a 6.5-point favorite to seal the deal this year against Kansas. "Doesn't bother us," Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor said. "They've got high expectations, and they had a great year so the expectations should be high. What we think, though, is that we match up with them well. We feel confident going into this game." And why not? Though the talent level may not be as strong as Kentucky's from top to bottom, the Jayhawks (32-6) get more reinforcement every game that anything is possible. On Saturday, they overcame a 13-point deficit against Ohio State for their latest escape act. Before that in the tournament, they won close ones against Purdue, North Carolina State and North Carolina. They were comeback kids in the regular season, as well -- a season that began with low expectations for a roster that got hit hard by graduation and other departures, then fell to 7-3 after an ugly, unexpected home loss to Davidson. "I was a little frustrated because I thought that we were underachieving, underperforming," Self said. "I thought we were a stale team. I thought we were slow. I thought we didn't play with great energy. I thought the things we had to do to be successful, we weren't committing to doing them." Somewhere in that mess, however, he saw the potential. Much of it shined through thanks to the development of Robinson, known for his first two years in college as a role player with NBA skills. He was allowed to blossom when he got regular playing time this season and is averaging 17.7 points and 11.7 rebounds a game. He was the only unanimous AP All-American and was in the conversation, along with Davis, in most of the player-of-the-year voting. "We know how good Thomas Robinson is," Calipari said. "We all up here know. We went against him in New York. He is as good as they get. He's a vicious competitor, great around a rim, expanded his game." These teams met in November at Madison Square Garden, a 75-65 Kentucky victory in the second game of the season. There wasn't much conversation about that one Sunday. More noteworthy were all the historical aspects of this game. Basketball, of course, was invented by James Naismith, who later went on to establish the KU basketball program in 1898. Adolph Rupp grew up in Kansas and learned the game under Naismith and the next KU coach, Phog Allen, then moved to Kentucky. Over four decades, "the man in the brown suit" won 876 games and four NCAA championships. So many iconic names have followed at both places: Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Brown, Danny Manning at KU; Dan Issel, Wes Unseld, Rick Pitino at Kentucky. Come Monday night, somebody else could get their name up in the rafters at Allen Fieldhouse or Rupp Arena. "I dreamed about it as soon as I saw the brackets," Self said. "I did look. I said, How cool would it be to play Kentucky in the finals?' You guys know better than me, but when do you have the two winningest programs in the history of ball playing each other? I don't know when. From a historic standpoint, I think that's really cool.'"

Best of the rest: QB, DL among Bears' targets on Day 2

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Best of the rest: QB, DL among Bears' targets on Day 2

Leftovers sometimes get a bad name. Pizza, chili, fine wine -- sometimes they're better the second day or at least after a little time to reach taste peaks. Some NFL draft picks may  be better if allowed to age overnight. The Bears, sitting at No. 10 in the second round, hope that's the case.

The selection of Georgia’s Leonard Floyd addressed Need No. 1 for the Bears: a pass rusher to get them off the field with third-down plays. But Needs No. 2-through-whatever remain to be filled with best-available’s from a draft board already picked over in some key areas.

The Bears had the chance to trade up into the first round from their spot at No. 10 in the second, but chose to keep their powder dry for day two’s second and third rounds.

  • Quarterback

Pace uncharacteristically expressed positives about the 2016 quarterback draft class: “It really is a good class of quarterbacks, and they’re all unique and they’re all a little different,” he said. “I think some guys are going to have different perspectives of different flavors, but it’s a good class. It breaks after a certain point and then there are some middle round guys that are intriguing for different reasons. It’s just up to us to analyze that and rank that correctly and I think we have.”

The Bears had private meetings with 10 different quarterbacks this offseason, indicating more than a casual interest in finding the right backup for Jay Cutler.

Already gone: Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Paxton Lynch

Best remaining: Connor Cook, Michigan State; Kevin Hogan, Stanford; Dak Presott, Mississippi State.

  • Defensive line

The defensive tackle position is rated one of the best in draft history. The Bears used a No. 2 last year and landed starting nose tackle Eddie Goldman and hope to have Ego Ferguson (a 2014 No. 2) back from knee surgery to go on the other side of Goldman in the base 3-4. But the defense was one of the NFL’s poorest at stopping the run and even with new, veteran inside linebackers, the foundation is the front.

Already gone: Joey Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Sheldon Rankins, Shaq Lawson, Kenny Clark, Robert Nkemdiche, Vernon Butler.

Best remaining: A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama; Andrew Billings, Mississippi; Jarran Reed, Alabama.

  • Tight end

Pace described the tight-end class as just “OK,” and the Bears lost one of the NFL’s best in trading away Martellus Bennett. One the plus side: No team dipped into the shallow talent pool in the first round.

Already gone: None.

Best remaining: Hunter Henry, Arkansas; Austin Hooper, Stanford; Nick Vannett, Ohio State.

  • Defensive back

The Bears had myriad options to select a cornerback or safety with their first-round pick but addressed the need for pass rush instead. But seven teams went for the back-end of the defense first within the first 25 picks of the first round.

Already gone: Jalen Ramsey, Eli Apple, Vernon Hargreaves, Karl Joseph, Keanu Neal, William Jackson, Artic Burns.

Best remaining: Vonn Bell, Ohio State; MacKensie Alexander, Clemson; Maurice Canady, Virginia.

  • Other notables in Bears’ need areas

Cody Whitehair, G, Kansas State

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama

Bears' Leonard Floyd: 'Comfortable doing...anything' in 3-4 scheme

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Bears' Leonard Floyd: 'Comfortable doing...anything' in 3-4 scheme

Leonard Floyd was a jack of all trades as a defensive standout at Georgia. Those types of players too often don’t do any single thing well enough to make any mark at the NFL level. But the Bears, and Floyd, think he can in fact be a master of all.

“I played outside, played inside,” said Floyd on Thursday night. “And I also did a lot of three-point stance as well as two, so I’m pretty comfortable doing pretty much anything in the 3-4 scheme.”

The Bears plan to use him as an outside linebacker, rushing the passer for a team that had no rushman with more than Lamarr Houston’s eight sacks. What that bodes for Houston’s future in Chicago, as well as that of outside linebacker Willie Young, who playfully refused to use the “L” word (“linebacker”) when talking about himself, is cloudy at best.

[RELATED: How the Bears landed on Georgia's Leonard Floyd]

Neither Houston nor Young was particularly effective in pass defense but “I’m pretty good in coverage, did a lot in college, covered the tight end,” said Floyd, who was credited with three passes defensed, same as Young, in 2015. “I feel like I’ll be fine at the next level.”

The Bears have no plans to set a heavier weight target beyond the 240’s that Floyd checked in at during the NFL Scouting Combine.

“The last thing you want to do is bulk this guy up and then you’re taking away what he does best,” said Bears GM Ryan Pace. “You see some guys put on too much weight too fast and they look stiff and they lose some of that twitch that makes them a special player. We’ve got to do it the right way. I’ve got a lot of confidence in our strength and conditioning coaches, our sports science director Jen Gibson, to get Leonard at an optimal playing weight to maximize his talent.”

But “I definitely want to add more mass to my body,” Floyd said. “I know Chicago has some of the best coaches in the league, they’re going to coach me up hard, and I’m excited to learn...

“I want to add more power to my pass-rush to go with my speed. That’s a thing I need to learn and pick up in the league.”

Buckeyes nearly match NFL Draft record with five first-round selections

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Buckeyes nearly match NFL Draft record with five first-round selections

Many expected a record-breaking night for Ohio State on Thursday, but the Buckeyes will have to settle for only five first-round selections in this year's NFL Draft.

In what was a phenomenal showing for Urban Meyer's program, five Buckeyes heard their names called during the first 20 picks in Thursday night's first round.

Ohio State came one selection away from matching the NFL Draft record of six players from one school being chosen in the first round, a feat accomplished by Miami, which saw six players taken in the first round in 2004.

Defensive end Joey Bosa got things started when he was selected by the San Diego Chargers with the third pick.

Teammate Ezekiel Elliott immediately followed when the Dallas Cowboys used the No. 4 pick on the star running back.

Cornerback Eli Apple made it three Buckeyes selected in the top 10 when the New York Giants took him at No. 10, instantly earning the new nickname of Eli "Big" Apple.

Offensive lineman Taylor Decker was chosen by the Tennessee Titans six picks later at No. 16, and linebacker Darron Lee rounded it out at five in the top 20 when he was picked by the New York Jets at No. 20.

It was the fourth time Ohio State has had five players picked in the first round of the NFL Draft.

The Buckeyes still have a shot at a modern draft record. Ohio State actually holds the record for the most players chosen in a single draft, with 14 players picked in 2004. As Cleveland.com's Bill Landis explained earlier this month, the all-time record is 17, accomplished by the Texas Longhorns in 1984, though that draft had 12 rounds. The 14 players sent to the draft by Ohio State in 2004 is a record under the current seven-round format.

Days 2 and 3 still figure to feature a lot of big-name Buckeyes. Top Ohio State talent not picked in the first round includes Vonn Bell, Cardale Jones, Braxton Miller, Joshua Perry, Tyvis Powell, Michael Thomas and Adolphus Washington.