NEW ORLEANS — Well, this matchup is going to look familiar.
John Calipari and his Kentucky juggernaut will face Kansas for the national championship on Monday night. That would be the same school that beat Memphis in overtime for the NCAA title in 2008, back when Calipari was coaching the Tigers.
It also would be the same Kansas team that the Wildcats beat back in November.
“We’re worried about us playing at our best,” Calipari said after Kentucky held off pesky Louisville 69-61 in the first semifinal Saturday. “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. We’re just worried about us.”
Top-seeded Kentucky (37-2) is back in the title game for the first time since 1998, when it won its seventh NCAA championship.
Down 13 in the first half, resilient Kansas (32-6) needed a furious comeback against Ohio State to reach the championship game, where it will play for its fourth NCAA title.
“It’s a dream to play the best team in the country, who is up until now, hands down, the most consistent,” Kansas coach Bill 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.”
That 2008 squad Calipari had in Memphis was stocked with talent, led by future NBA MVP Derrick Rose. But the Tigers missed four free throws down the stretch and blew a late nine-point lead in an overtime loss to Mario Chalmers and the Jayhawks.
These Wildcats, however, are in a totally different class. Anthony Davis has won just about every player of the year award there is, and Louisville coach Rick Pitino likened him to Bill Russell after Saturday night’s game.
No wonder. The 19-year-old doesn’t look like a freshman, and he certainly doesn’t 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 percent Saturday night and had two other players besides Davis in double figures. Darius Miller scored 13 points and Doron Lamb added 10. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had nine despite playing just 23 minutes because of foul trouble.
“Kentucky is a great basketball team, with great effort,” Pitino said.
He doesn’t need to tell the Jayhawks; they experienced it firsthand in the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York, a rare regular-season game between college basketball’s two winningest programs.
With the score tied at 30 a minute into the second half, the Wildcats broke loose with an 11-0 run. Two free throws from Tyshawn Taylor stopped the spurt, but Marquis Teague had a dunk and Doron Lamb hit consecutive 3s. Moments after an airball, Lamb drilled another 3 and Kentucky had a 54-37 with 10:05 to play.
The victory was Calipari’s first in four games against Kansas, where he began his coaching career as a volunteer assistant in 1982.
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 Marcus and Markieff Morris, their leading scorers and rebounders, as well as 3-point specialist Brady Morningstar.
But a team meeting helped Kansas find its focus, and the Jayhawks simply refuse to lose. They’ve lost just two games since Feb. 7, and keep eking out wins in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s pretty cool to have the winningest program of all time and the second-winningest program of all time hooking up on Monday night,” Self said.
On Saturday night, the Jayhawks scored the first bucket but didn’t lead again until Travis Releford made two free throws with 2:48 left. That lead lasted for all of 11 seconds, but the second-seeded Jayhawks overcame another deficit and finally held on against the Buckeyes (31-8).
Taylor’s two free throws with 8.3 seconds left gave Kansas a 64-61 lead, matching its biggest of the game. The Jayhawks intentionally fouled Aaron Craft with 2.9 seconds left. Craft made the first, then quickly clanked the second one off the front of the rim on purpose but was called for a lane violation as he darted in to grab the rebound.
Kansas dribbled out the clock, and the rematch was on.
“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,” Jayhawks guard Elijah Johnson 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.”