Back in November, Kansas lost to Kentucky 75-65 in the Champion's Classic. On Monday night the two teams will meet again to determine the national champion. How will the Jayhawks matchup this time around? Here is a position-by-position breakdown:
Kansas' Tyshawn Taylor gets criticized as much as anyone in the country. Whether it is for his turnovers, his shot selection or his decision-making off the court, Taylor has become somewhat of a whipping boy. The shame in that is that it ignores just how good of a basketball player he is capable of being, because when Taylor has it going he is one of the most dynamic point guards in the country. He can shoot from three (well, except for in this tournament), he can create off the dribble, he's athletic enough to finish at the rim and he's crafty enough to find the open man when defenses help. He's going to take some bad shots and he's going to have some ugly turnovers, but it is something that you have to live with. He's a game-changing point guard. That said, Marquis Teague has been terrific over the last two months. When he is playing his best basketball, he makes the Wildcats nearly impossible to beat.
Throughout the season, Doron Lamb has been a better -- and a more important -- player than Elijah Johnson. Lamb is a big-time scorer from the perimeter who has developed into one of the most dangerous three-point shooters in the country. One of Kentucky's issues is that it isn't a great perimeter shooting team, so the presence of Lamb on the court to spread the floor is huge. However, Johnson has been terrific the last seven games. He's averaging 15.4 points and shooting 44.4 percent from three, becoming another scoring threat to help keep defenses from collapsing on Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor. He's also come up huge in clutch situations in this tournament. Can it continue?
Kentucky gets the nod here because of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. There aren't many players in the country who play as hard as he does or are as effective as he is going to the offensive glass and getting out in transition. If there is a knock on Gilchrist, it's that he seems to have some confidence issues from time to time. He struggled down the stretch of the season and then was a no-show for the first 30 minutes against Louisville. But once he finally got on the board, he was the difference maker for the Wildcats. But Kansas may be able to give Kidd-Gilchrist some trouble. Travis Releford is is one of the Jayhawks' best defenders and has the size to match up with him. A large part of what makes Kidd-Gilchrist so effective is his size, his strength and his athleticism. Releford, at the very least, has the frame to keep up with him.
If it wasn't for a strong finish to the season from Anthony Davis, Thomas Robinson would have been named national player of the year. Robinson is a freakishly talented athlete who thrives on his ability to overpower smaller defenders and use his quickness against bigger defenders. The odd thing is that Robinson is probably less-skilled than Terrence Jones, his Kentucky counterpart, but Robinson's consistency and effort level go a long way. You always know that Robinson is going to be playing as hard as possible; Jones has a habit of disappearing. What will be interesting with this matchup is how Kentucky goes about trying to stop Robinson. In the first game, the Wildcats smothered him on the block much the same way that Purdue did in the Round of 32. With Taylor's struggles shooting the ball and the inconsistency of Johnson and Conner Teahan, don't be surprised to see more trapping of the post from the Wildcats.
Anthony Davis is the national player of the year. Kentucky would have the advantage at the center spot over every team in the country this season. That said, the matchup between Davis and Jeff Withey is an interesting one. Withey is not as athletic as Davis is, but they have similar builds and Withey may actually have a higher standing reach than Davis. Much of what Davis provides Kentucky comes of the defensive end of the floor, but his value offensively is his efficiency and his ability to finish around the rim. Kentucky knows that if it gets into the paint against a defense and the center steps up to try and block a shot, all the Wildcats need to do is throw the ball near the rim and Davis will more than likely be able to finish it with a dunk. It worked against Gorgui Dieng, but Withey has an inch or two on Dieng and leads the nation in block percentage.
Darius Miller is one of Kentucky's most important players. As John Calipari put it after the Wildcats' win Saturday night, "he's a top 50 player to ever put on a uniform at Kentucky, but he's accepted coming off the bench." Miller's value is in his versatility. He's a bigger wing, but he can defend multiple positions, he's dangerous as a jump shooter and as a penetrator, and he's capable of scoring 15 or 20 points on the right night. Perhaps his biggest contribution to this Kentucky team has been his ability to knock down clutch shots. He hit the biggest shot of the game against Louisville, a three with five minutes left that gave the Wildcats a seven point lead. Kansas, frankly, doesn't have much of a bench at all. Teahan can come in and knock down jumpers while Kevin Young has proven to be valuable as an energy guy off the bench so long as he isn't shooting the ball.
The job that John Calipari has done with this Kentucky team this season should not go unnoticed. Turning a group of freshmen and sophomores into the most dominant team in the country is not an easy thing to do, particularly when you are dealing with the number of supremely talented players Calipari is. He's managed to create a situation where his two best players -- Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist -- take the fourth- and fifth-most shots on the team and where his senior leader -- Darius Miller -- comes off the bench and everyone is OK with it. Aggregating talent is difficult, but managing those egos is just as tough. But when it comes to a single game situation, there may not be anyone in the country that is better, right now, than Bill Self. He is, very simply, in a zone right now. For example, it was his decision to switch to a triangle-and-two defense, which made the difference in wins over Purdue and North Carolina in the tournament. Calipari is underrated in his ability to coach, but Self is still the better in-game tactician.