NEW ORLEANS — Elijah Johnson still doesn’t like to think about the last time Kansas played Kentucky.
“That first game bothered me so much,” the junior Kansas guard said Sunday of the Jayhawks’ 75-65 loss to the Wildcats on Nov. 15 in the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden.
“We weren’t a team, we didn’t play like a team, we didn’t act like a team.”
It was just the second game of the season for both teams. Four and half months later, the two squads will meet again Monday night in New Orleans for the national title.
Kansas is the veteran team, with five juniors and two seniors in its seven-man rotation. Kentucky is the roster full of freshmen and sophomores with only one upperclassman, senior guard Darius Miller, receiving significant playing time. Yet it’s the Jayhawks, not the Wildcats, that are most improved since their first meeting.
In a way, it makes sense. Kentucky has six players who were named McDonald’s All-Americans in high school. Kansas has none.
“When you talk about one through five, they probably got the best five, six, seven guys, on paper anyway,” Jayhawk senior guard Tyshawn Taylor said.
Moreover, the Jayhawks core features many upperclassmen getting a drastic increase in playing time. Johnson averaged 13.7 minutes per game last season. This year he’s averaged 32.1. Junior forward Thomas Robinson’s average has increased by 17, after playing just 14.6 minutes per game last year. Junior guard Travis Releford’s minutes have tripled to 30.6. Junior center Jeff Withey’s time has quadrupled to 24.6. Senior guard Conner Teahan? He’s seen the most drastic jump, from 3.8 to 21.1.
So when Kansas first met the Wildcats at the start of the year, it’s not surprising the Jayhawks weren’t at their sharpest.
Kansas started strong, playing the Kentucky even for the first 20 minutes. But in the second half, Kentucky pulled away and cruised to victory, holding a double-digit lead for all but one second of the final 15:01.
“The second half, when they were able to get going and get easy baskets, throw lobs and things like that, they manhandled us pretty good,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
Withey had four blocks in the teams’ first meeting, but the Jayhawks also allowed the Wildcats to get 36 points in the paint, which tied for the most they’ve allowed all season. Withey’s defensive presence has improved over the course of the year, blocking five or more shots in ten different games, including four of his last six outings.
“Jeff played a pretty good game our second game when we played Kentucky,” Taylor told reporters Saturday night, “But they didn’t see the Jeff Withey that we have now.”
Withy, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, will need to be on his game to control Kentucky’s All-SEC frontline of Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
On the offensive end, Kansas needs to find a way to attack Kentucky with greater success. Davis had seven blocks in the first meeting, while Jones and Kidd-Gilchrist added three swats apiece.
One key to neutralizing Kentucky’s interior defense could be Johnson, who’s scored in double figures in seven consecutive games and is shooting 42.6 percent from 3-point range in the last 14 contests.
They’ll also need a stronger performance from the All-American Robinson, who was outplayed by Davis back in November.
“I played a horrible game,” Robinson said Sunday. “The biggest part of why we lost that game is because I was kind of selfish and tried to do everything by myself. I can’t let that happen this game.”
There’s a stark contrast in how Kentucky and Kansas view their earlier meeting.
The Wildcats aren’t putting much stock into that first matchup.
“That was a long time ago,” freshman point guard Marquis Teague said. “We haven’t even watched film on that game…Both teams are a lot better now than then.”
But the Jayhawks have been thinking about it all year.
“We weren’t men about the situation,” Johnson said of the earlier meeting. “Once we got down, we didn’t know what to do…We know what to do now.”
Robinson is especially motivated and one quote from him Sunday particularly stood out.
“I want payback.”