x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A test for the college basketball history boys

The two 'winningest' teams – the Kentucky Wildcats have seven NCAA championships, the Kansas Jayhawks have three – meet on Monday night to decide this year's title.

Elijah Johnson, No 15, of the Kansas Jayhawks grabs a rebound in the second half against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the National semi-final game
Elijah Johnson, No 15, of the Kansas Jayhawks grabs a rebound in the second half against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the National semi-final game

NEW ORLEANS // There will be a lot of history on the court tonight when the Kentucky Wildcats and the Kansas Jayhawks meet to determine the American college basketball championship.

The two schools are first and second in all-time victories - Kentucky with a 2,089-649 record, and Kansas at 2,070-805.

"It's pretty cool to have the winningest programme of all-time and the second-winningest programme of all-time hooking up on Monday night," Bill Self, the Kansas coach, said.

Kentucky have won seven NCAA championships; Kansas have won three.

The Wildcats are back in the title game for the first time since 1998, thanks to a 69-61 victory over cross-state rival Louisville in the semi-finals on Saturday.

Kansas reached the final with a 64-62 win over Ohio State, putting on a furious comeback after trailing by 13 points in the first half.

"It's a dream to play the best team in the country, who is up until now, hands down, the most consistent," Self said. "It's a thrill. And I think it's even more of a thrill for us, because I don't think anybody thought we could get here."

John Calipari, the Kentucky coach, said he was impressed by his team's resiliency.

"I have a team that's had teams come at them all year," he said, "and they responded again today.

"We did not play at our best tonight. We played good, but that wasn't our best. You know what? So maybe Monday is our best."

Kentucky were led by the freshman Anthony Davis, who has won just about every player of the year award there is, and Rick Pitino, the Louisville coach, likened him to the former NBA great Bill Russell after Saturday night's game.

No wonder. The 19-year-old Davis does not look like a freshman, and he certainly does not play like one, recording his 20th "double-double" against Louisville with 18 points and 14 rebounds. He missed just one of his eight shots, and also had five blocks and a steal.

"Anthony Davis is as fine a basketball player as there is," Pitino said.

Then there are the rest of the Wildcats. They shot a blistering 57 per cent on Saturday night and had two other players besides Davis in double figures.

"Kentucky is a great basketball team, with great effort," Pitino said.

He does not need to tell the Jayhawks; they experienced it first hand in November at the State Farm Champions Classic in New York, a rare regular-season game between college basketball's two winningest programmes. The Wildcats broke open a tight game with an 11-0 run and went on to win 75-65.

Few people would have expected the Jayhawks to earn a rematch with Kentucky after the way they scuffled through the early part of the season. They were 7-3 midway through December and struggling to find an identity after losing several key players to the NBA draft.

But a team meeting helped Kansas find their focus, and after that the Jayhawks caught fire. They have lost just two games since February 7, and keep eking out close wins in the NCAA tournament.

"These guys have matured a lot and played a ton of minutes this year, so they're far more experienced than some would be just because of the situations they've been in," Elijah Johnson, the Jayhawks guard, said.

"We kind of played on borrowed time a little bit, but I think it gives the guys confidence that no matter what, we're OK."

Against Ohio State, Tyshawn Taylor made two big free throws late in the game, and the All-American Thomas Robinson finished with 19 points and eight rebounds in a game Kansas led for a total of three minutes, 48 seconds.

After scoring the game's first basket, Kansas did not lead again until Travis Releford made two free throws with 2:48 left. That lasted for 11 seconds, but the Jayhawks, who trailed by as many as 13, overcame another deficit and finally held on against the Buckeyes.

"It was two different games," Self said. "They dominated us the first half. We were playing in quicksand it looked like.

"And the light came on. We were able to get out and run, but the biggest thing is we got stops."

* Agencies