Kansas Jayhawks (33-3) vs. Villanova Wildcats (22-12)
When: 9:40 p.m. ET tonight
1. Coaching Pedigree. Can we lay off Bill Self just a bit? Besides the natural jealousy at the man's full, luscious head of hair, Bill Self seems to be unfairly maligned as a coach who can't win the big one. News Flash, bucko: Coach K, Dean Smith, Boeheim, and Roy Williams won their first titles at ages 44, 51, 58, and 54, respectively. Yet they are all now universally lauded as deans of the profession. For all the shit that Bill Self has taken, he is still a relatively young coach (45). Give the man time. People say that he has coaching for over 10 years without a title. True, but all but the last five of those seasons have been at mid-major schools off the national basketball radar like Oral Roberts, Tulsa, and Illinois. (Ed. Note: GRRRRRR.)
2. Bench star. For all the talk about the NBA futures of players like Brandon Rush and Darrell Arthur, the case could be made that KU's best player comes off the bench. Sherron Collins has been battling injuries and sickness for most of the season, and the Jayhawks' sometimes-sluggish play reflected that. Collins has had to deal with a fractured foot, bruised knee and influenza this season, ailments that have kept him from contributing at full strength. Now, however, Collins is healed and playing his best basketball of the season. Not coincidentally, the Jayhawks seem to be peaking later rather than sooner. Collins provides a threat both with the ball and without, and just about everywhere on the court. Built like a linebacker with an attitude to match, Sherron is at ease shooting 3s or bruising in the paint - no easy feat for a player listed at 5'11". Collins may not get all the attention or headlines, but his play is crucial to the Jayhawks' ability to avoid another disappointing tournament performance.
3. Team tragedy. When it comes to big-time college athletics, people tend to forget that when it comes down to it, we are talking about and betting on the exploits of young men - kids, really - between the ages of 18-22. Often, these kids come from backgrounds that would make even the most cynical and downtrodden white middle-class observer cringe. These Jayhawks have experienced more loss and tragedy in the past few years than I would wish on any group of people in a lifetime. Darnell Jackson lost his grandmother in a car wreck that also seriously injured his mother. To add insult (and more injury) to injury, his uncle was beaten to death with a hammer, his father was shot dead by Oklahoma City police, and his cousin died in February from gunshot wounds received outside an Oklahoma City nightclub in February. Sasha Kaun's father was found dead under mysterious circumstances (is there really any other way to be found dead in Russia these days?). Rodrick Stewart's adopted brother was shot dead in February while sitting at a traffic light. Sherron Collins' infant son died soon after Collins moved to Kansas from inner-city Chicago. Winning and losing basketball games, and the fans' reactions thereof, seem like child's play compared to the loss and heartache that these men have seen. — Pete Gaines
1. 'Twas the Great Blizzard of '05. The last time Kansas and Villanova met on the court was in late January 2005, after a vicious snowstorm had blanketed the Delaware Valley with up to a foot or more of snow in most areas. Kansas was ranked second in the nation at the time, undefeated at 14-0, while Villanova was unranked at 10-3 and had yet to make the tournament under head coach Jay Wright. With snow still fresh on the ground, over 13,000 Wildcat fans braved the weather to pack the Wachovia Center and were rewarded for their troubles as Villanova plowed through the Jayhawks, 83-62. Kansas turned over the ball 22 times, while 'Nova shot 63 percent from three-point range. It was this game many fans look to as the turning point for Wright and Villanova, leading to four straight NCAA tournament bids and three appearances in the Sweet Sixteen. (The day after Villanova's upset victory, a certain alumnus by the name of Brian Westbrook gained 135 total yards in the NFC Championship Game against Atlanta, helping the Eagles get to Super Bowl XXXIX. It was a great weekend.)
2. Kobe, Dirk, Reggie... You Owe It All To Paul. Today, jump shots are commonplace in college and the NBA. They are the bread-and-butter of anyone who's even the slightest threat outside the paint. For that you can thank Villanova's "Pitchin' Paul" Arazin, the originator of the jump shot. In Arazin's college days (the late 1940's), most shots were either layups or set shots, with the player's feet firmly planted on the ground. In some arenas the slippery floors made it difficult to plant one's feet to either hook or shoot the ball, so Arizin began to jump just before releasing his shot. The new technique took off and helped Arazin become of the best scoring centers in college hoops, averaging 22 points per game as part of the Villanova Wildcats team that reached the Elite Eight in 1949. After graduating, Arazin was drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors, where he would use his patented jump shot to help them win the 1955-56 NBA title. Arazin passed away in December 2006.
3. We Laugh In The Face of Low Seeding, And Drop Ice Cubes Down The Back of "Hoya Paranoia." No team has won more games as an underdog than Villanova (13 and counting). During their storybook championship run in 1985, the Rollie Massimino-coached Wildcats were seeded eighth in the Southeast Region, out of a field that had just been expanded to 64 teams. Their 66-64 victory over defending national champions Georgetown still ranks as one of the greatest upsets in the history of the NCAA Tournament. On the way there, Villanova took out regional seeds number 1 Michigan, number 5 Maryland and number 2 North Carolina, before knocking out another regional 2-seed (Memphis State) in the Final Four. — Chamomiles Davis