NEW ORLEANS — The running joke all season was that Kentucky was good enough to beat some NBA teams. Say, maybe the Toronto Raptors.
Farfetched? Probably. But with that stable of pros-in-waiting, one thing seemed certain: The Wildcats were the team to beat in college basketball.
Capping a season that had a feeling of inevitability, Kentucky finished with a flourish, beating Kansas 67-59 in the NCAA championship game Monday night.
OK, so maybe it was the last time we’ll see many of those future millionaires in blue and white. At least they’ll go out as heroes after bringing home an eighth national championship to Big Blue and giving John Calipari the one missing piece to his resume.
“We were the best team,” Calipari said. “I wanted this to be one for the ages.”
Calipari has had a knack for luring the nation’s best recruits to Lexington, never worrying about whether they’d stick around.
This year’s bouncy-legged bunch was impressive even by his standards.
Led by everybody’s player of the year Anthony Davis, these fast-tracked Wildcats raced past nearly everyone who got in their way.
Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Doron Lamb, Darius Miller, Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague — Coach Cal had a team of ringers and he, along with everyone else, knew it. Who’s No. 2 seemed to be the only question left.
Kentucky lost just twice during the season: on a buzzer-beater by Indiana and to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament in New Orleans, where Commodores big man Festus Ezeli pushed the Wildcats around.
The Vandy loss seemed to serve the Wildcats well, giving them a not-so-subtle reminder they still have to play, that this was no divine-right coronation.
The message clearly came through.
Kentucky attacked its first four NCAA tournament opponents like a swarm of bees; swat one and the rest are coming after you.
The Wildcats earned a return trip to the Big Easy by turning a highly hyped regional final against Baylor into a rout.
Waiting for them was in-state rival, Louisville in the national semifinals.
The scrappy Cardinals made a game of it, thanks to some master manipulation by coach Rick Pitino, the former leader in Lexington who’d gone to the enemy, but Kentucky was just too deep, too talented.
That set up a blue blood matchup with Kansas in Monday’s championship game. Save for a slight stumble near the finish — Kansas closed to within five after trailing by 18 — the Wildcats rolled to the title everyone said was theirs to lose.
“They’re playing with pros,” Kansas coach Bill Self.
Davis rose up as the best of them all.
The 6-foot-10 freshman with the pterodactyl wingspan and Lexington’s favorite eyebrows dominated in what may be his only season in college basketball.
Shot-swatter, rim-rattler, jump-shooter, game-changer — Davis was the consensus player of the year, everyone’s pick to be the No. 1 overall choice in the NBA draft when he comes out.
He took over the title game without making a shot until the last 5 minutes, a 1-for-10 performance that was nearly a perfect 10 on the rest of the stat line: 16 rebounds, six blocked shots to tie a title game record, three steals, enough intimidation to get the Jayhawks to chuck shots at the backboard so the ball wouldn’t get sent into the student section.
“He is an unbelievable factor on both ends,” Self said.
And he may be gone. So could several other players in just a couple of weeks. With five potential first-round picks, the NBA may be too enticing for this team to stay together.
That’s OK with Calipari. He’s hung his hat on chasing after the best players, regardless of whether they’ll stick around or go to the NBA. Teach them as much as he can, win with them as much as he can, let them go when they’re ready is Calipari’s philosophy.
It works. Calipari got to the title game in 2008 — a crushing loss to Self and the Jayhawks — with future NBA star Derrick Rose and Memphis. John Wall and the four other first-round draft picks reached the regional final in 2010. Brandon Knight led last year’s team to the Final Four.
Finally, this year, Cal’s method was fully validated in the form of a national title.
“I don’t think it’s a good rule,” Calipari said. “I hope we change it before this week’s out and all these guys have to come back. But it is a rule. It’s not my rule. It’s a rule we have to deal with.”
And one Calipari and the Wildcats ruled with, at least this year.