Mar 25, 2012; St. Louis, MO, USA; Kansas Jayhawks players celebrate after the finals of the midwest region of the 2012 NCAA men's basketball tournament against the North Carolina Tar Heels at the Edward Jones Dome. Kansas won 80-67. Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE
As Kansas fans, we are rarely afforded this opportunity. Not to go to the final four; that is an opportunity we are thankfully afforded a lot. But the opportunity to watch a team with more question marks than sure things (you could even say all question marks) grow into a league champion, and then in three consecutive NCAA tournament teams where they could have easily lost, pull out tough wins. This Kansas team didn't out talent everyone. They out toughed, out fought, and out competed everyone. (of course it didn't hurt to catch a couple of big breaks along the way).
At the start of the year, the Final Four was my personal ceiling for this team. But that was, in my mind, only if Thomas Robinson had monster performances to get them there. And while Robinson did play well enough to be named region MOP, this trip is everyone's. It's Jeff Withey, who went from playing in 10.6% of the team's minutes last year to Big 12 defensive player of the year, and who had a pair of big blocks in the waning minutes to start two fast breaks. It was Travis Releford, who helped force Harrison Barnes into just a 5-14 shooting day. It was Elijah Johnson, who has gone from disappointment to on the shortlist for 2013 Big 12 player of the year in a matter of weeks. It was Conner Teahan, who worked his butt off to go from walk on to three point specialist to an ever improving guy on the defensive end. It was Kevin Young, who gave up being a star at Loyola Marymount to come to Kansas and provide energy off the bench, changing games with his effort and athleticism.
But more than anything, it's Bill Self's. The man who had won 8 straight Big 12 titles and could wind up perhaps the best coach of the modern era was still overlooked nationally thanks to some NCAA tournament losses, but the way he adjusted all tournament, whether it be going to the triangle and two or managing foul trouble or just simply knowing how to motivate the team was nothing short of amazing. This team's bench is Conner Teahan, Kevin Young and Justin Wesley. Nothing against those three but it is a far cry from bringing Robinson off the bench last year. And somehow Self guided them to the final four. It may end on Saturday, it hopefully will end on Monday, but either way the ending will be far more sweet than bitter for the first time since 2008.
- Thomas Robinson missed out on a double double by one rebound, and shot just 5 of 15 from two, but he made all of his free throws and his defense got better over time: Tyler Zeller started off 3-3 from the field, all within the first 6:10 of the game, and went just 3-8 the rest of the way as Robinson and the rest of the Jayhawks clamped down inside.
- Tyshawn Taylor struggled from three again, going 0-5, but he did hit some jumpers and got to the basket well, finishing 10-14 from two. And I guarantee he makes at least one three at the final four. He also grabbed 6 rebounds, had 5 assists and 5 steals. An effort you can be proud of to end your career on, but having it be the main reason you get to play another game must feel even better.
- Elijah went just 1-6 from two, but made 2 of his 5 threes including a killer with 3 minutes left to extend the lead to 4. He also tied for the team high with 5 assists.
- Kevin Young once again provided a ton of energy, grabbing 8 rebounds in just 17 minutes of playing time.
- Jeff Withey was 5-5 from the floor, and had 8 rebounds and 3 blocks, including the two late ones.
- I noted that KU needed to win the battle of the big men in the pregame post: Henson and Zeller combined to go 11-23 for 22 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks, while Robinson and Withey went 11-21 for 33 points, 17 rebounds and 3 blocks.