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Kentucky head coach John Calipari, left, talks with Kansas head coach Bill Self during a television interview for tonight's NCAA National Championship game in New Orleans.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari, left, talks with Kansas head coach Bill Self during a television interview for tonight's NCAA National Championship game in New Orleans.

NEW ORLEANS — Jayhawks or Wildcats, take your pick. Either can make a case for this being “their” year.

For Kansas, a season that started with low expectations keeps getting better, filled with high-wire comebacks and an inescapable feeling that this was simply meant to be.

For Kentucky, a cadre of NBA-caliber players have had the word “champion” practically imprinted on their chests since they gathered at Rupp Arena for the season’s first practice.

They meet tonight for the NCAA Championship, a history-filled matchup between the two winningest programs in college basketball history. This is the one-and-dones at Kentucky vs. juniors and seniors at Kansas; Anthony Davis vs. Thomas Robinson in a front-court battle of All-Americans; a title-game coaching rematch between John Calipari and Bill Self; a high-stakes meeting between one team whose founder invented the game and another that likes to claim its legendary coach perfected it.

Want To Watch?

WHO: Kentucky (37-2) vs. Kansas (32-6).

WHAT: 2011-12 NCAA Tournament National Championship game.

WHEN: 9 p.m. today.

WHERE: New Orleans.

TV: CBS.

LINE (UPDATED): Kentucky by 6.

Kentucky (37-2), in search of its eighth national title but its first since 1998, has five, maybe six, players who will be playing in the NBA soon. Most are freshmen and sophomores. None are better than Davis, the 6-foot-10 freshman who had 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks in Kentucky’s 69-61 win against Louisville in the semifinals.

“Anthony Davis is a great player, but he’s not Superman,” Self said Sunday, clearly ignoring the fact that, only moments earlier, Davis had been walking around the Superdome with his practice jersey slung across his shoulders like a cape.

As he has all year and all tournament, Calipari has not so much defended as explained his coaching philosophy, which is to go after the very best players and not demand they graduate, but only that they play team basketball for whatever amount of time they spend in the Commonwealth.

“I don’t like the rules,” Calipari said. “I want Anthony to come back and be my point guard next year. It’s really what I want. There’s only two solutions to it. Either I can recruit players who are not as good as the players I’m recruiting or I can try to convince guys who should leave to stay for me.”

He won’t do either. By pulling no punches, the coach finds himself working with the most talent — Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are likely lottery picks, while Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb are among the others with first-round potential.

Calipari is a win away from the first national title of a stormy and controversial career, one that began as a volunteer assistant at Kansas. His first two trips to the Final Four have been vacated because of NCAA violations. Though his 2008 trip with Memphis is no longer in the record books, it’s clearly emblazoned in his memory.

That team, led by Derrick Rose, had one essential flaw — bad free-throw shooting — and the coach dismissed it every time he was asked about it in the days and weeks leading to his final against Self and the Jayhawks. The Tigers missed four free throws down the stretch and blew a nine-point lead in what turned into an overtime loss that gave Kansas its third NCAA title.

Lessons learned? Well, Calipari does make his team run more after bad free-throw shooting nights.

But regrets? Not many.

“At the end of the day, we had a nine-point lead,” he said. “I have to figure something out. Go shoot the free throws myself, do something to get us out of that gym and I didn’t.”

A year later, Cal was out of Memphis and putting the pieces in place for his run at Kentucky. It began with a trip to the Elite Eight, continued last year with a spot in the Final Four and oddsmakers have Kentucky as a 6.5-point favorite to seal the deal this year against Kansas.

“Doesn’t bother us,” Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor said. “They’ve got high expectations, and they had a great year so the expectations should be high. What we think, though, is that we match up with them well. We feel confident going into this game.”

And why not?

Though the talent level may not be as strong as Kentucky’s from top to bottom, the Jayhawks (32-6) get more reinforcement every game that anything is possible.

On Saturday, they overcame a 13-point deficit against Ohio State for their latest escape act. Before that in the tournament, they won close ones against Purdue, North Carolina State and North Carolina. They were comeback kids in the regular season, as well — a season that began with low expectations for a roster that got hit hard by graduation and other departures, then fell to 7-3 after an ugly, unexpected home loss to Davidson.

“I was a little frustrated because I thought that we were underachieving, underperforming,” Self said. “I thought we were a stale team. I thought we were slow. I thought we didn’t play with great energy. I thought the things we had to do to be successful, we weren’t committing to doing them.”

Somewhere in that mess, however, he saw the potential.

Much of it shined through thanks to the development of Robinson, known for his first two years in college as a role player with NBA skills. He was allowed to blossom when he got regular playing time this season and is averaging 17.7 points and 11.7 rebounds a game. He was the only unanimous AP All-American and was in the conversation, along with Davis, in most of the player-of-the-year voting.

“We know how good Thomas Robinson is,” Calipari said. “We all up here know. We went against him in New York. He is as good as they get. He’s a vicious competitor, great around a rim, expanded his game.”

These teams met in November at Madison Square Garden, a 75-65 Kentucky victory in the second game of the season. There wasn’t much conversation about that one Sunday.

More noteworthy were all the historical aspects of this game.

Basketball, of course, was invented by James Naismith, who later went on to establish the KU basketball program in 1898.

Adolph Rupp grew up in Kansas and learned the game under Naismith and the next KU coach, Phog Allen, then moved to Kentucky. Over four decades, “the man in the brown suit” won 876 games and four NCAA championships.

So many iconic names have followed at both places: Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Brown, Danny Manning at KU; Dan Issel, Wes Unseld, Rick Pitino at Kentucky.

Come Monday night, somebody else could get their name up in the rafters at Allen Fieldhouse or Rupp Arena.

“I dreamed about it as soon as I saw the brackets,” Self said. “I did look. I said, ‘How cool would it be to play Kentucky in the finals?’ You guys know better than me, but when do you have the two winningest programs in the history of ball playing each other? I don’t know when. From a historic standpoint, I think that’s really cool.’”


KANSAS VS. KENTUCKY: Breaking down the title game

KENTUCKY’s ROAD TO THE TITLE GAME

No. 1 Kentucky beat No. 16 Western Kentucky 81-65; No. 8 Iowa State 87-71; No. 4 Indiana 102-90; No. 3 Baylor 82-70; No. 4 Louisville 69-61.

STAR

Freshman Anthony Davis lived up to his billing as national player of the year with 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks in the win over Louisville. He was 7 of 8 from the field and added to his personal highlight reel with a one-handed dunk off an alley-oop pass and a flying leap off the court and over a row of media. One real positive was the way he called for the ball in the post in the second half as the Wildcats struggled from the perimeter.

COACH

This will be John Calipari’s second championship game. His first was with Memphis four years ago — an overtime loss to Kansas and coach Bill Self. Calipari’s strategy of not fouling with the lead before a 3-point shot could be attempted was questioned as Mario Chalmers buried a late 3 to tie the game and force overtime. Calipari did win the last meeting against Self, 75-65, at Madison Square Garden in the second game of the season.

KEY POINT

Kentucky’s roster is still loaded with NBA-level talent, but the Wildcats didn’t look like the offensive juggernaut it had been throughout the NCAA tournament, failing to reach the 80-point mark for the first time. But the defense was just as good, if not better, holding Louisville to 34.8 percent shooting from the field, a stat the Wildcats led the nation in this season. One player who will be looking to make amends will be freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist who was limited to 23 minutes because of foul trouble but still managed a couple of big dunks as the Wildcats took control in the final minutes.

KANSAS’ ROAD TO THE TITLE GAME

No. 2 Kansas beat No. 15 Detroit 65-50; beat No. 10 Purdue 63-60; No. 11 North Carolina State 60-57; No. 1 North Carolina 80-67; beat No. 2 Ohio State 64-62.

STAR

Thomas Robinson took over the semifinal in the second half, finishing with 19 points and eight rebounds. It was his presence inside that allowed the Jayhawks to finish with a 42-30 rebound advantage and stymied Ohio State’s frontcourt of Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas, who were a combined 8 for 33 from the field. This matchup pits him against Davis, his competition for national player of the year.

COACH

Bill Self has a chance to join the select group of multiple championship coaches. He is 3-0 in his two Final Four appearances, and the latest win looked a lot like the Jayhawks’ others in this tournament — they found a way to win. Not much of a spotlight grabber, Self is considered one of the best in-game coaches, and his teams are known for the ability to shake off a poor first half, usually with a better defensive performance.

KEY POINT

Robinson did what is expected of him in the win over Ohio State; 7-foot center Jeff Withey had eight rebounds and seven blocks; and Elijah Johnson added 13 points and 10 rebounds — a big effort from the guard who doesn’t get most of the attention. Tyshawn Taylor, the guard who’s considered Robinson’s co-star, had 10 points and nine assists. He also had five turnovers — including a potential devastating one with 3.8 seconds left — and was 0 for 3 from 3-point range, leaving him 0 for 20 from beyond the arc in the tournament.

THE SKINNY

These are the two winningest programs in college basketball history. Each has an all-America big man and guards capable of taking over a game. The coaches are on most short lists of the best in the sport. This game has all the angles covered. Come on, what more do you want?

THE PICK

Most of the bracket sheets that haven’t been shredded still have Kentucky, the overall No. 1 seed, winning it all. The dream scenario would be for Kentucky to have a slim lead with the clock ticking down. The flashbacks to San Antonio in 2008 would be popping into everyone’s mind. Why not the same result? Kansas in a shocker, 73-71.