Kentucky’s must-win situation vs. Kansas in NCAA basketball final

NEW ORLEANS — This is a make-or-fastbreak moment for Kentucky, the one-and-done movement and Coach John Calipari.

It’s not a question of whether Kentucky will win Monday night’s NCAA title game against Kansas.

Kentucky must win — or else, well, consider badminton?

This year’s trophy has, for days, been sitting on a silver platter.

Kentucky’s star-studded cavalcade caught a huge break when fourth-seeded Louisville broke through the West into Lexington’s side of the bracket.

A bigger gift came from across the divide, in the form of a wrist injury to North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall that probably allowed Kansas to get here.

The team Kentucky feared most in this field, North Carolina, never made it to New Orleans.

How many more stars does Kentucky need to align?

Kansas is a worthy opponent and, along with Kentucky, could start a Basketball History Channel.

The programs, ranked second and first in all-time wins, have also combined for 10 national titles and 29 Final Fours.

This is Kentucky’s 11th title-game appearance and the ninth for Kansas, which has finished second five times.

Coach Bill Self has done a masterful job squeezing victories out of a team that has found interesting ways to win.

Kansas is not better than Kentucky this season but has every reason to think it can prevail.

No way Kansas could win a best-of-seven series, but it can win a best-of-one.

“They’re here for a reason, it’s not by mistake,” Kentucky senior guard Darius Miller said.

Star center Anthony Davis agreed.

“They’re a great team, capable of beating us,” he said.

Capable, for sure, but Kentucky had best not let that happen.

This is a career pivot point for Calipari, who needs a victory Monday to prove he’s a great coach, not just a great recruiter.

You can go only so long winning 37 and 38 games a year without winning the last one.

Only adding to the plot is Calipari’s getting a do-over against Self’s Kansas team, which defeated Calipari’s Memphis squad to win the 2008 national title.

It’s a game that still haunts Calipari. Memphis let a big lead slip away at the end of regulation but still led by three points late when Kansas raced down the court for a final chance.

Memphis couldn’t foul Sherron Collins before he kicked a pass to Mario Chalmers, who made a three-pointer to tie the score.

Kansas won in overtime.

Self guessed Sunday he once watched a replay of the game 50 straight days while doing daily workouts on his elliptical exercise machine.

“I could go over a few possessions if you want,” Self said.

The game stayed with Calipari in a different way.

“I have never looked at that tape,” he confessed Sunday. “That tape was flung out the door of the bus as we were going to the plane. So I have never looked at that tape, nor will I…. The only thing I would learn from that thing is, ‘Oh my gosh, we lost.’ I’m moving on.”

It wasn’t lost on people that Self, up by three points late Saturday against Ohio State, ordered Kansas to foul Aaron Craft and won the game by two.

Calipari reiterated that Memphis did try to foul in 2008 but didn’t get it done.

“The kid got away from our guy,” he said.

One of these days, preferably Monday for Kentucky fans, Calipari needs to validate his one-and-done recruitment philosophy with something you can hang in Rupp Arena.

Two years ago, Calipari’s fleet of five first-round NBA picks, led by John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, flamed out in the regional against West Virginia.

The longer Calipari goes at Kentucky without winning a title, the more he becomes an interloper from Moon, Pa. None of his starters from this season are even from Kentucky.

Winning Kentucky’s eighth title might be the only way to reconcile this cultural disconnect.

“This isn’t about me,” Calipari said.

Oh, yes, it is.

It is Calipari who has tipped the NCAA age-limit rule on its head by recruiting a stream of star players he knows may be on campus for only a year.

Calipari said he is not worried about his legacy.

“If my legacy is decided on one game, it won’t be me deciding it,” he said. “It will be everybody else.”

Calipari should be worried about his legacy, because coaches are the only people in the sport who stay long enough to establish them.

It is nearly impossible for one-and-done players to duplicate the multiyear footprints left by Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton, Patrick Ewing or Steve Alford.

Kentucky won’t get closer to a national title than this. The Wildcats have in Davis, perhaps, the best player in a generation.

That’s no guarantee he won’t slip on a wet spot at the Superdome or that Kentucky, up by three points late, can’t execute an intentional foul to keep a game out of overtime.

“In these tournaments, stuff happens,” Calipari said.

For Kentucky, on Monday night, for Calipari’s sake, it better be good stuff.