Sunday, March 24, 2013

Kansas Overcomes Tough Obstacles, Shows Resilience

It ended with Kansas coach Bill Self meeting North Carolina’s Roy Williams to give him a friendly handshake, and then he chortled and smiled with his players near mid-court. It ended with Williams walking out of the tunnel, long after his players and assistants, long after a Kansas party erupted in the Sprint Center. It wasn’t bad, couldn’t have been to hear from a fan base that still appreciates Williams, who can tell us plenty of stories about his Kansas days.

Much to Williams’ chagrin, who is 0-3 lifetime against Self and Kansas since taking the UNC coaching job in 2003, the Tar Heels lost a comfortable lead by the second half. All around him, fans kindly stood and praised the former Jayhawks coach. But an emotional Williams, as usual whenever UNC can’t beat the Jayhawks in the NCAA tournament, sits at the podium during news conferences and congratulates Kansas, while he talks about a disappointing end of another season.

It started with sloppy plays for the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks on both ends of the floor. Early on, things were bad enough and couldn’t get any worse for Kansas, a team many national experts picked to make the Final Four. The game was boring and slow, uneventful and uninteresting in the first half. The coach’s stare was edgy. Self was hysterical and uneasy, and he nervously walked back and forth on the sidelines, without even sitting and having a drink to settle down.

With Kansas struggling early, Self was gesturing to his players and encouraged them to loosen up and find a rhythm. The gutsy 70-58 win late Sunday afternoon against eighth-seeded North Carolina was followed by the ballsy victory over No. 16 Western Kentucky in the first round. And like most successful teams, resilience just makes the Jayhawks stronger as a team. The depth and talent has been working to Kansas’ advantage, a senior-laden team pursuing the ultimate goal, which is to win a national title. If they win a trophy and cut down the nets, it would be Self’s second national title.

Kansas, however, might be the most dangerous team in this tournament and certainly is up for the task, realizing that another trip to the Final Four is at stake, along with potentially another back-to-back national title appearance. The rulers of basketball are the Jayhawks — a perennial national power of college basketball, winning five of the last seven Big 12 tournaments, despite falling victim to the biggest upsets in tournament history to both Northern Iowa and VCU.

Great teams overcome adversity. Great teams grind out victories and endure to the end. Great teams find ways to rally and show that resilience is the result of success and building late momentum. That’s exactly what Kansas was able to do against the Tar Heels. With each victory, the Jayhawks have become stronger and more efficient. It was not Kansas’ best game, I assure you, but it was enough to survive and beat North Carolina for the second straight year, and the Jayhawks will advance to the Sweet 16 and will face No. 4 Michigan in Arlington, Texas, on Friday.

It wasn’t pretty that seven-foot center Jeff Withey, the nation’s best shot-blocker, was not intimidating and a factor inside the paint to start. There were simply too many turnovers and missed shots. They were lucky to be within striking distance and not trailing by many by the end of the first half. They couldn’t make a jump shot in the opening 20 minutes against North Carolina. It took them about 22 minutes to snap out of a shooting drought, and Kansas had the worst shooting percentage in a half, only shooting a staggering 25 percent.

By assuming that the slow start scared thousands of panic-stricken fans, though fans were confident and hopeful the Jayhawks would turn it around in the second half, one could only wonder whether or not Kansas was on the verge of a disappointing ending. The Jayhawks were sluggish, torpid and clumsy, turning over the ball 17 times, barely settling for put backs and a couple of dunks. Surely, you saw the Jayhawks’ best player Ben McLemore finish 2 for 14 from the field in two tournament games. He’s one of Kansas’ top scorers, but he wasn’t playing like it, scoring like it, and mostly, he was missing shots by taking ill-advised ones. And surely, you saw Kansas guard Elijah Johnson shoot 2 for 12. There was a universal sense, both for national experts and Kansas’ fans — that Johnson was not a five-star player — that he’d oftentimes struggle and receive unwarranted criticism from thousands of critics.

Self wasn’t too happy and pleased with what he saw in the first half. So then he followed his team into the locker room and, without a doubt, delivered a message to his players. His team’s lack of effort and poor ball execution had been formidable, but whatever he said to his players during the half, it was enough to wake up everyone. By that, he gave them one of his halftime speeches, a coaching strategy Self exercised, especially when Kansas failed to play effectively in the first half of a contest. At halftime, Kansas trailed by nine points and the night was so nerve-racking, so excruciating and then it was so tantalizing.

And perhaps most incredibly, Kansas finally drilled jump shots. The first three-pointer of the tournament, after 13 consecutive misses over two games, was buried by Travis Releford and it was a game-changing shot and might have given the Jayhawks momentum in what turned out to be dramatic. Had it not been for Releford the Jayhawks could have been eliminated in the Round of 32, but he made the team’s first three-pointer after Kansas had gone without a three for the first time in 201 games against Western Kentucky. As it happened Withey, whose toughness and confidence soon became contagious, grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds.

This kind of thing happens in March and that’s excitement and thrills, such was Kansas running the Tar Heels out of the building by scoring 31 points in nine and half minutes. It came down to who had the most energy and who was the strongest and hungriest. Turns out it was Kansas. With a Sweet 16 berth at stake, Kansas shot the ball efficiently, limited turnovers and played smart, perpetuating a 35-12 run and turned the game into a pep rally for the crowd.

The Kansas seniors, including the rest of the team, are well coached, to be sure, and don’t want to go home empty-handed. At the right time, Releford, who is a defensive specialist, was on fire, scorching the nets and finishing with 22 points. It’s time for all of us to realize that Kansas is a tough out. Before we discount KU, realize they have size with Withey, who blocked five shots and had a double-double, giving him a total of 43 swatted shots in his NCAA career, second all-time behind Tim Duncan in the postseason.

Holy smokes.

Now that the top-seeded Kansas has shown it can overcome obstacles, Self’s team is definitely a dangerous out.