Bob Ryan

In title game, ground rules established

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / April 2, 2012
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NEW ORLEANS - The underdogs were cute, and Butler two years ago was a special treat, but sooner or later we really had to get back to basics in the NCAA Tournament.

We needed a championship game with true heft, cachet, and romance, a title game of college basketball elites. You don’t need one every year, but it’s good to have one every once in a while in which more than a century of tradition permeates every aspect of the matchup.

And so we give you for the 74th championship game in NCAA Tournament history a matchup Monday night between the most pluperfect ultra of ultra-establishment teams. We give you a matchup between the two winningest programs in college basketball, teams with a combined total of 4,161 victories, 10 NCAA championships, 29 Final Four appearances, and 94 combined trips to the tournament itself.

It’s UK vs. KU, and it’s a good thing the Kentucky and Kansas kids are reasonably capable of staying in the moment. Histories like this can be quite suffocating.

Kentucky (37-2) and Kansas (32-6) have been playing NCAA Tournament games for a long, long time - Kansas since 1940 and Kentucky since 1942 - but have butted heads in tournament play only once, in a 1999 Midwest Regional game played right here in the Dome (then called simply the New Orleans Superdome, now branded as the Mercedes-Benz Dome). Fittingly, it was an overtime affair, with the Wildcats pulling out a 92-88 triumph.

The programs are hopelessly intertwined, then and now, and not merely because both schools have wonderfully passionate fan bases. No name is more associated with either school than Adolph Rupp, the man who ruled the school and the Commonwealth of Kentucky for 42 years (1930-72), but guess where he went to school? Yup, the University of Kansas. Now we swing to current Wildcats mentor John Calipari. Where did he begin his college coaching career? Yup, at Kansas, first under Ted Owens and then under Larry Brown.

Kansas is at the very heart of college basketball. The school first put a team on the floor in 1898. The coach? Oh, some Canadian refugee named Naismith. Yes, indeed, that would be Dr. James Naismith, who first came up with the game a few years earlier in Springfield, Mass.

Naismith remains the only man who ever has coached basketball at Kansas to leave with a losing record. Small wonder that when he turned over the reins to Dr. Forrest “Phog’’ Allen in 1907 he remarked that, “You don’t coach basketball, Phog, you play it.’’

It’s doubtful either Calipari or Kansas mentor Bill Self would fully concur with that sentiment, even though they would be in agreement that you do need good players to win. Let no one doubt that just having good players is a start, and nothing more. The ultimate reason both teams will be playing in this game is that these gentlemen have succeeded in molding their nice collections of talent into very admirable T-E-A-M-S, teams.

How’s this for another subplot? This is a coaching rematch of the 2008 championship game in which Self’s Kansas team prevailed over Calipari’s Memphis squad in OT following one of the more amazing regulation finishes ever.

Calipari is publicly shrugging it off. “I have never looked at that tape, and I never will,’’ he says. He likewise insists that he is nowhere near as concerned as people think he might be about not having won an NCAA championship. “I’m just trying to coach a game and do the best job I can for these kids,’’ he keeps saying, and he might even believe it.

Self has a different take. “I could recite just about every possession if you want to go through it right now because I’ve seen it enough,’’ he says.

Now, about these fans.

There is nothing in college basketball like the Kentucky fans. Basketball to them is a far more important matter than life and death. In the old days they were cheering, in large measure, for mostly Kentucky kids whose exploits they had followed closely all through high school. Now they find themselves cheering for young AAU-bred mercenaries for whom Kentucky is a brief pit stop en route to NBA fame and glory. Winning would be nice, but marketing their personal brand is a more pressing matter, as Calipari was forced to concede Sunday.

“I think six of them have a chance to be drafted in the first round,’’ he said. “If they go out there and play their butts off and do the right thing, then it [winning the NCAA title] means more to them than it would to me.’’

But the UK fans easily have embraced this particular bunch because they really do play very team-oriented basketball, with not one player averaging more than nine-plus shots per game.

Understand, however, the lovey-dovey feeling will disappear very quickly if the Wildcats do not win this game, with this particular team. A silver medal will not do. There will be people plunging off bridges if the Wildcats do not bring home the trophy.

Kansas also has tremendous fans, both in spirit and in number, but there is a more benign Midwestern form of high schoolish unrequited love on display, at least from an outsider’s point of view.

Self looks at it this way: “Ours is more like probably a two- or three-story building, but not a tall bridge,’’ he jokes. “There will be enough that would jump. But I think our fan base is the most realistic-unrealistic group you could ever be around. Ours actually appreciate guys trying hard, playing hard, conducting themselves in a good way that you don’t feel like it’s life and death with every game. Probably the most realistic-unrealistic group you could ever have because they’re certainly not realistic, but they’re probably more realistic than Kentucky fans.’’

Got that?

Self clearly gets the big picture implications here. “I dreamed about it as soon as I saw the brackets,’’ he says. “I did look. I said, ‘How cool would it be to play Kentucky in the finals?’ I do think it’s pretty neat that you have the two winningest programs of all time hooking up, the bluest of bluebloods getting a chance to play.’’

It would have been an ideal 75th anniversary match, but if we get it one year early, so be it.

UK vs. KU. About time.

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