OK, it's time: Kentucky vs. Kansas for the NCAA title

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OK, it's time: Kentucky vs. Kansas for the NCAA title

From Comcast SportsNet
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- 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 Monday 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. 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 over Louisville in the semifinals. "Anthony Davis is a great player, but he's not Superman," Self said, 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.'"

Blakely: Tatum's character separates him from many of the other rookies

Blakely: Tatum's character separates him from many of the other rookies

BOSTON – With his new head coach Brad Stevens and Boston Celtics ownership and front office officials surrounding him, Jayson Tatum’s mind seemed to be somewhere else briefly.

He looked ahead, way, way ahead to the other end of the Celtics’ practice court where there were banners, lots of banners, raised high above all else in the gym.

This wasn’t just a passing glance, either.

TATUM SPEAKS

It was clear that the newest Celtic was in deep thought as he stared at the 17 banners and the one left blank, a steady reminder of what this franchise is about, past and present.

Yes, it’s a lot to soak in for anyone let alone a 19-year-old kid whose career with the Celtics can be timed on a stopwatch.

But the soft-spoken 6-foot-9 forward has been here long enough to understand that success around here is about more than playing well; it’s playing to win a championship.

And that in many ways separates Tatum from his teenage brethren who made up the majority of Thursday night’s NBA draft which included an NBA-record 17 players taken in the first round who like Tatum, were just one year removed from high school.

All come into the NBA with lots to learn, as well as goals and aspirations for this upcoming NBA season.

During an interview with CSN on Friday, I asked Tatum about what in his mind would make for a successful season.

And his answer initially was to ask me a question, “Individual or team?”

So I replied, either one.

“To get back to where they were last year and get over that hump,” he said. “Championships, chasing that number 18, that would be the ultimate success for me.”

That served as a reminder as to why despite having a handful of players under consideration at No. 3, the Celtics did the right thing in selecting Tatum.

His words may seem like the politically correct response, but take a look at the kid’s basketball resume and you’ll quickly see he is indeed about winning and doing so in whatever way possible.

After missing his first eight games at Duke with a foot injury, Tatum gradually improved as the season progressed and wound up on the all-rookie team as well as being named to the All-ACC third team.

Once the Blue Devils got to the ACC Tournament, Tatum became a different, better, more dominant player.

Indeed, Tatum led the Blue Devils to their first ACC championship since 2011 and did so in historic fashion as the Blue Devils became the first ACC school to win the conference tournament with four wins in four days.

Late in the title game against Notre Dame, Tatum put together a sequence of plays that speaks to why the Celtics were seriously considering taking him with the number one overall pick had they not been able to trade it for the No. 3 and a future first-round pick.

With the scored tied at 65, Tatum made a free throw that put Duke ahead.

Moments later, he blocked a shot and finished off the play with a lay-up that gave Duke a three-point lead.

After a Notre Dame basket, Tatum connected with a teammate for a 3-pointer that pushed Duke’s lead to four points with around a minute to play.

And then there was the 3-point play Tatum converted after getting fouled on a dunk which secured a 76-69 Duke win over the Fighting Irish.

Free throws. Blocks. Getting out in transition. Passing.

When his team needed him most, he gave whatever was required at that moment which is one of the intangibles that makes Boston feel good about his future.

“He does whatever he has to do to help you win,” said an NBA scout who said he has seen Tatum play “at least a dozen times.”

He added, “Like all of these kids coming into the league now, he has some things he has to get better at, get more consistent with. But he makes winning plays, whether it’s for himself or others. He’s a lot more unselfish a player than he’s given credit for being.”

And he’s 19 years old, which is both a blessing and a burden when you’re an NBA team executive charged with committing at least two years and millions of dollars into a young man.

Part of the process when making a draft choice, especially when it’s one of the top picks, is character evaluation.

Of the players at or near the top of the draft board, multiple league executives contacted by CSNNE.com in the past couple of weeks said this was an area where Tatum stood out in comparison to all of the top prospects.

“He’s the kind of young man you’d love whether he was a basketball player or not,” one Western Conference executive told CSNNE.com. “If you’re ranking guys on character alone in this draft, he’s your number one pick.”

Danny Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations, acknowledged the challenge of differentiating between miscues made by a teenager as being problems of concern going forward, or whether that’s a teenager making the kind of bad/questionable decisions most teens make.

“It’s dangerous to play too much into a 19-year-old kid’s behavior,” Ainge told CSN’s A. Sherrod Blakely and Kyle Draper on Friday. “But I think that, with all the things we do, from physical, emotional, mental, character, work ethic and their skills … it’s just really hard at 19. You hate to just be labeled what you are at 18.”

But in regards to Tatum specifically, Ainge added, “Jayson is a high character guy. We know he will get better because of his character and his work ethic.”

Said Tatum: “It’s a great feeling. Being part of a great organization like the Celtics; think of all the great players of the past and you can follow in their footsteps.”

And in doing so, blaze a trail of his own in the pursuit of Banner 18.

David Price improves command, indicates he's pitching through ailment

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David Price improves command, indicates he's pitching through ailment

BOSTON — David Price and Rick Porcello showed improvement on back-to-back nights Friday and Saturday, important signs for the Red Sox after a difficult month for both pitchers prior to this homestand.

Price on Saturday night went six innings and allowed three runs, two earned, in a 6-3 loss to the Angels. He fanned five and his velocity has been consistently better this year than last year.

But the most important number was his walk total: one. He walked three batters in his previous start, and four in both of his starts prior.

“Two outings ago, the first start here in Fenway,” Sox manager John Farrell said. “There was better timing in his delivery and overall better separation over the rubber. And he carried that through I thought, even though there's a higher pitch count in Houston, and has been able to maintain it here. I can't say there was one specific thing. It's been more the timing over the rubber. And you're seeing him pitch out of the stretch exclusively. Just less moving parts in a better position to repeat it.”

After Price’s final inning, the telecast captured Price calling pitching coach Carl Willis into the tunnel. Neither Farrell nor Price detailed the conversation. 

“Yeah, everything was fine,” Farrell said of the conversation. “Everything is OK there.”

Price made it sound like he’s dealing with some sort of physical ailment, but was vague.

“There's a lot of stuff going on right now,” the pitcher said when asked about the desire to stay out there. “You don't want it to linger into the next start, or two or three weeks from now, and that's why we did what we did.”

Asked to elaborate, Price reinforced that the decision was to save his body for another day.

“You never want to come out of a game. But you have to look forward at the time,” Price said. “You don’t want today to cost you your next start or you know, the start after that. So that’s what happened.

“It has nothing to do with my elbow or anything like that. This is — you get past one thing and there’s another So that’s what it is.”

Price in New York in early June felt a blister develop on his ring finger. He missed an in-between start bullpen because of it.

Asked about the blister Saturday, Price said, “That one’s gone.”

Farrell indicated the blister was diminished, if not entirely gone.

“He's been dealing with that,” Farrell said. “I think while it's still present and maybe not as severe as it was when it first happened, I'm sure he's going to check on it occasionally."