Young teams don't win games like that.
They just don't.
They go into half down double-digits, they don't come out on fire in the second, they let one of the best shooting teams in the country get open looks. They turn the ball over a bunch, they freak out at the noise, they disappear for stretches.
And, when this was a young team, we lost an eerily similar game. We traveled down to Tucson on December 23rd, taking on an average Arizona Wildcats squad. A lot like the Bears', actually. A damn good offense, with a couple of bonafide stars, combined with a so-so-at-best defense. It as in a hostile environment, just like down there in the Ferrell Center.
The games followed just about the same path, too. We struggled a shitload early on, but Arizona/Baylor turned the ball over enough, and their stars (Chase Budinger and Curtis Jerrells) were shut down enough to keep Kansas in the game. Kansas even held a two-point lead at halftime in both games. And, again, in both games, Kansas surged out of the gates in the second half, building up large leads (44-35 against Arizona, 43-33 against Baylor).
Nearly identical scenarios, identical situations.
But this time, this time was different. When Baylor went on their run, just like Arizona did way back in December, something was different. Instead of getting outhustled, or freaking out because of the crowd noise, or going cold from the outside, or giving Jordan Hill free paths to the basket, we stood our ground. We didn't lose our composure, like most young teams do (and like we did, in Tucson).
When they cut it down to 48-47, we didn't panic. Relly Ice quickly brought the ball down and, as he's prone to do, nailed a clutch shot. Momentum was diminished, the noise was lessened. It wasn't just one clutch shot at one certain moment, though. It was what followed that really showed just how much older this team is than it was just a month-and-a-week ago. We kept on battling. We quickly entrenched ourselves as the team who cared more, the team who was trying harder, the team who shot better, the team who did the extra little things it takes to win. Those extra little things we didn't know how to do on December 23rd, we did over-and-over-and-over last night against the Bears.
Talk about "playing older"; we played like a team jam-packed of experienced juniors and seniors. We acted like we were a team who knows what it takes to win.
Player-by-players are where they always are...
- When selecting the Game's MVP, it came down to two candidates. Two candidates that are so often grouped together whenever mentioned, I figured it wouldn't be too bad if they are given the MVP award together. Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris. No, seriously, they're my MVP's. Without them, and I'm being honest, we don't win this game. As important as Sherron is, always, and as huge as some of Cole's first-half buckets were, no one was more important than Markieff and Marcus. Going in, I wanted big-time production from them, and knew it would be necessary to win.
In my KenPom preview, here is what I had to say regarding the Morris twins:
Kansas - Morris Twins (Fs) -- Really, I created this feature to talk about Markieff and Marcus. They've got a big game in them, and I think this is when it's going to burst out of them. They've both played damn-near-awesome in the past two games; now is the time for them to show up that well against a really good opponent. And, being the huge fan of them that I am, I say they show up in a big way. They get a bunch of extra layups off of second chance points, pickup a shitload of rebounds in general, and stay out of foul trouble for the most part. They even limit their stupid turnovers, and make a couple of nice shots. And even make their free throws.
I'll go with a combined line of: 19 points, 14 rebounds, 2 blocks, 4 assists, 3 turnovers, 3 fouls.
Victory is ours, if that last little line happens. I promise.
Their line? 22 points, 15 rebounds, 2 blocks, 0 assists, 4 turnovers, 5 fouls. So, better on the points and rebounds, worse on the accessories. I'll take it, baby. However, they got more points than I expected simply from running our offense; it was almost to the point early in the second half where we were running plays specifically for Marcus Morris to score, honest. Both deserve major props, as both were fantastic for stretches and at particular things. Marcus single-handedly surged us out to a lead at the beginning of the second half, scoring the first six points of the half and 8 of the first 10. He hit all three of his free throws, and picked up six rebounds. He was awful in the first half at taking care of the ball, but whatever. Markieff, on the other hand, had an even better game. He was a monster on the boards, picking up 9 (!!) boards. Nine. He did get in some foul trouble, picking up 4 fouls, but he such a factor on the offensive glass, we'll overlook it.
- If not the Morris twins, the race is wide, wide open. There are cases to be made for and against just about every other major minute-earner, except Tyshawn, probably. We'll go Sherron Collins as the next-in-line, but his shot was off for the second straight game. He couldn't get much of anything going from outside fifteen feet. However, he completely destroyed Curtis Jerrells on defense, and still, somehow, found his way into the lane enough to score 17. Not really sure how. His floater before half, to give us the lead, was a huge play, as well. It gave us all of the momentum going into break, which certainly played a role in us surging ahead at the opening of the second. He had one stretch where he got in the lane so easily, he kept it too long instead of kicking it out to Relly Ice, but other than that, he kept up the phenomenal habit of kicking it out when defenders come at him.
Cole Aldrich didn't have, by any stretch, the best statistical game of all time. However, whenever we needed a basket in the first half, with Sherron's shot being off, we went down low to him. We'd throw an entry pass that he'd have to reach really high for, he would do his one pivot move and throw up a three-foot baby-hook with his left hand. Money. We did this at least three times, every time to halt a mini Baylor run. Whenever we're in trouble, whenever we need a momentum-stemming play to be made, we go inside to Cole. If they cover him tightly, then he'll kick it out and Sherron will usually take it, but we always try and let Cole do whatever down low.
- For some reason, I don't like Brady Morningstar's game as well as most. I mean, obviously he played great; there is a reason Bill didn't let him sit his ass on the bench. And his two threes in the first half single-handedly kept us in it. We weren't doing anything right on offense, really, and yet we were only down 11-9 thanks to two gigantic Brady threes in the early going. But after that point, he was virtually non-existent on the offensive end, and got beat a couple of times on the defensive end. Now, I'm obviously just nit-picking now, because my expectations are so gaudy, but LaceDarius did score 13 points. Of course, 7 of those were at the free throw line, but still. And he got beat a handful of times, which is nearly unheard of from him. Still an outstanding overall performance, but I've seen other, better ones. Like in Arizona, when he was literally the only one who played well.
Relly Ice comes through yet again. And no, I'm never, ever letting that nickname die. It is officially Relly Ice. Tyrel didn't even have that good of a game, but he hit it when it counted. I hate that argument, but damn, Tyrel makes it so darn hard to disagree with. Dude does pretty much nothing on offense all night (it was his only shot attempt of the night), but when we really, really, really need a basket to stem the tide, he comes through and nails a sixteen-footer. Boom. Tide stemmed, momentum halted, game altered. All in a single shot's work. Relly Ice is also a substantially better defender than he was earlier on in the year. He still doesn't move his feet quite enough, and can get beat off the dribble, but he's much, much better.
- Mario LIttle started off even worse than the Morris twins in the first half, but also provided big-time production in the second half. Our team is so much better when our four's are on, it isn't even funny. We have legitimate scoring options beyond Sherron, Cole and drive-and-kicks, and it relaxes the double-teams on Cole. Hell, after Markieff nailed his three, the next time he touched it out there, two Baylor defenders sprinted towards him, leaving Sherron (SHERRON!) wide open in the corner. Moving back to Little, though, his shot is just gorgeous. It's one of those, like Brandon Rush's jumpshot, where every single time he shoots it, you think it is going in. It just looks good. I don't know how he got 12 points (4 from the free throw line, I suppose, which is good; he needs to hit his freebies) and he did pick up only 3 rebounds (and 4 fouls, including 2 in the first half in like a minute), but still, a solid effort from Mario. He's got plenty of room for improvement, too, so that's nice. It sure is sweet having him on this team, which suddenly looks to be a contender, isn't it?
- Another ho-hum game from Tyshawn Taylor. Nothing special, a couple of stupid mistakes, but a nice play to make up for it. His fastbreak layup where he went coast-to-coast shows just how good he can be, particularly on fast breaks, but he just isn't there yet. It'll be interesting to watch his development, because we've all seen him at his best when he looks like a miniature (to me, at least) Sherron out there. He just doesn't show up like that enough.
All in all, this was a fabulous win. Just stupendous in every regard. It's clear that the early road games have paid off in a big way, and we are clearly a better team now than we were just a month ago. As opposed to the Kansas team that left East Lansing, which had the second weekend as its ceiling, this new-look Jayhawk team could reach the Elite Eight. I'm calling it right now. Everyone says that all you need to win in March is a damn good PG, a damn good big guy and some decent depth. That defines us to a tee. Well-placed big games from Tyshawn, or Markieff, or Marcus, or Brady, or Mario, or Relly Ice could get us some wins in the NCAAs. As simple as that.
Hell, it's February 3rd right now. Don't give up the dream. We can still repeat as National Champs.
Well, maybe that's taking it a little too far...