King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NCAA Championship Game: Kansas and Memphis are both playing so well, how can either one lose?


King Kaufman
April 7, 2008 1:00PM (UTC)

We must resist the temptation, we prophets, prognosticators and purveyors of Shinola, to believe that the way things are going is the way they are going to keep going.

It's a common trap. How many of us who watched Kansas struggle against Davidson last week pegged the Jayhawks to dominate and embarrass North Carolina in the first half of their NCAA Tournament semifinal game Saturday night? Not many of us, especially since North Carolina had looked so good in pounding Washington State and beating an elite Louisville team in the regionals.

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I didn't. "I'm not going to win any pools so I don't have to stick with Kansas to beat North Carolina," I wrote Friday. "I think the Tar Heels are too fast and too good."

And yet, look how quickly minds can change. This is famous already, but after Brandon Rush made a 3-pointer to give Kansas an astonishing 38-12 lead with 7:32 left in the first half, CBS analyst Billy Packer put on a kind of funny accent and said, "This game is ovah."

"Is it?" play-by-play man Jim Nantz asked.

"Yes it is," Packer answered confidently.

"Wow!"

Yeah, wow. If Kansas can outscore North Carolina by 26 in seven and a half minutes, who's to say North Carolina -- which had looked like the better team seven and a half minutes earlier -- couldn't outscore Kansas by 26 in 32 and a half minutes?

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But did you think the Tar Heels were going to do that? They were stepping in post holes as Kansas ran them out of the gym. The lead was soon 40-12.

I thought the 7:32 mark of the first half was way too early to declare the game over, but mostly as a matter of protocol.

I know that anything can happen. I remember the Bills-Oilers playoff game in '93, the 2004 American League Championship Series and an epic game of Risk during finals week my freshman year. But I'd be lying if I said I thought it would happen. I mean, look at what was going on. Kansas was blowing Carolina's doors off.

We know now that anything didn't happen -- but it almost did. Kansas won the game 84-66, but only after the Tar Heels closed the gap to 54-50 before the midpoint of the second half. At that point, I was thinking North Carolina was going to pull off the comeback, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one thinking that.

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Even though I knew, somewhere down there, that the way things are going is not necessarily the way they are going to keep going.

"You declared it at 7:32 to go, first half," Nantz said to Packer when the Jayhawks had finally pulled away from North Carolina for good. "It shocked me."

"Well," Packer answered, "you say what you see, you know?"

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But that's the rub. What you see is only what's happening now, and that might not mean much in a few minutes. It's a hard lesson to learn, though you'd think that someone who's been watching the mercurial sport of college basketball for as long as Packer would have learned it by now.

"That's why I love you," Nantz said, a comment that hung there, achingly, longingly, in the San Antonio air.

So now we turn to the NCAA Championship Game Monday night, Kansas against Memphis, the Tigers having blown out UCLA 78-63. That one had almost none of the crazy drama of the Kansas-Carolina game. The Bruins only stayed as close as they did for as long as they did because the Tigers missed so many shots from close to the basket. I counted 10 misses from within eight feet or so in a first half that ended with Memphis leading by three.

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Memphis took care of things in the second half, the excellent guard tandem of Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts controlling the game and the more pedestrian frontcourt players neutralizing UCLA center Kevin Love.

Both teams are playing tremendously well, Kansas' near stumble against Davidson notwithstanding. That was then, this is now, you see.

They're fairly similar. Both teams use three guards and both like to force turnovers and run. The Memphis backcourt is bigger than just about anybody else's, including that of Kansas. Douglas-Roberts, at 6-7, is a matchup nightmare, and even if someone manages to guard him, he has about a million ways to score. Rose has been unstoppable driving to the basket.

Where Kansas has the advantage is up front, where the Jayhawks have a lot of depth. If Kansas can get Joey Dorsey and Robert Dozier in foul trouble, there's a big dropoff for the Tigers. It's a great plan. It's just that it hasn't worked yet.

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The title game promises to be exciting, fast-paced, end-to-end ball, but then both semifinals promised games like that, and while the pace was fast, neither was evenly matched -- the Kansas-North Carolina game, even when the score was close, was always being dominated by one team or the other.

The game will probably come down to which team can sustain a hot streak longer. Kansas is going to have all kinds of trouble with Memphis' dribble-drive penetration, and Memphis is going to have trouble if Rush and Mario Chalmers heat up from outside, or if the Jayhawks can get the ball into the low post. If we're lucky, all of the above.

And if we're smart, we won't convince ourselves in the first half that the way it's going is the way it's going to keep going.

I've learned my lesson. I can't picture the Tigers losing with the way they've been playing, but I picked Kansas to win it all two weeks ago and I'm sticking with the Jayhawks now.

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How can they lose: Did you see those last five minutes against North Carolina?

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  • King Kaufman

    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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