FanPost

NCAA 2012 Final Four: The Self-Aware Kansas Jayhawks

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Photo courtesy KUSports.com

You can bet this is going on the front page, welcome back RC - Owen

This is fairly long-winded and occasionally sidetracked, and largely ignores any actual analysis of matchups or anything else involving tonight's game. I didn't want to rehash the same sort of gameplay discussions having already taken place countless places across the internet. Plus, I don't have KenPom.com, so I'd end up just being frustrated writing it. I'm fairly out of practice in terms of sports writing, but in any case, hope you enjoy and rock chalk! -- rc

In 2009-10, the Kansas Jayhawks' were a fine-tuned machine calibrated to destroy the opposition. Offensive weapons existed everywhere one could turn, from the lightning quick first step of Sherron Collins to the burly post presence of Cole Aldrich and every spot in between. The Morris twins improved every time they stepped on the floor, extending range on their jumpshot and accumulating a laundry list of available post moves stemming from their time with the Professor of the Post, Danny Manning. Enigmatic freshman Xavier Henry was the sort of precocious talent that is almost too skilled, capable of nearly everything on the basketball floor, and program-lifers like Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar filled in the missing gaps, serving as the oil to maintain this mechanical death machine.

After racking up a multitude of impressive blowouts and earning the #1-overall seed in the NCAA Tournament they fell, dramatically and fantastically, to the Northern Iowa Panthers in the second round, a defeat encapsulated by the stunning pull-up three of Ali Farokhmanesh. I need not rehash that miserable game, but that final, damning possession can be awfully instructive when comparing that season to the one still being played. The Jayhawks were in fine defensive position, even provided a momentary opportunity at a pilfer, and generally walked the line well between aggressively going after a steal and ensuring no whistle, preparing to hunker down for the most important possession of the season. However, once Farkohmanesh broke into the open floor he spotted an opportunity and seized it. Statistically, it was not the correct play. It would have been safer to hold the ball, draining precious seconds off of the clock, as opposed to risking a miss, providing Kansas the ball down only a point with an enormous amount of time.

The correct play had been made by the defense, and yet a single unexpected deviation from the normal end-of-game happenings promptly disposed of the favorite. Had the game been played ten times, the Panthers likely win only once or twice. They were a good team, yes, consisting of a handful of professionals (namely Adam Koch) and a whole mess of cohesion and, perhaps most importantly, unified belief. But from a talent perspective, they were no match for Kansas. Yet, there they were, celebrating a moment that will not soon be forgotten in Northern Iowa lore, while the seemingly interminable death machine slowly realized its dissolution.

***

The 2006-07 edition of the Dallas Mavericks were a sight to behold, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Their transcendent star, Dirk Nowitzki, had the finest season of his career, in all likelihood, posting a TS% (True Shooting Percentage, an all-encompassing stat which combines all three facets of shooting [2-pt, 3-pt and FT] and weighting them according to their point value) of 60.5, an ungodly number made even more impressive considering his usage rate approached 30%. In many ways it is one of the greatest shooting seasons in the history of the NBA, and he was surrounded by a deep, multi-talented supporting cast. While offensive by nature, the strict leadership of Avery Johnson focused primarily on the defensive end, allowing the two to coalesce into the league's best team, posting the best record in the NBA on their way to the #1-overall seed.

They had everything an NBA champion might need, with enough girth down low in 7-footers Desgana Diop and Erick Dampier to protect the rim and enough offensive firepower, from dead-eye shooter Jason Terry to the blinding quickness of Devin Harris, to run circles around the majority of their opponents. And yet, when opposed by the lowly Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs, they wilted. Dirk couldn't handle the incredibly physical style of defense employed by Stephen Jackson throughout the series and the Dubs rode a mountain of momentum to a six-game series victory, one of the biggest upsets in NBA Playoffs history.

Had they played the series 5 times, Dallas assuredly would have won four of them. A nearly perfect confluence of events were required for the Warriors to manhandle the Mavs, yet that is just what happened. Talent and overwhelming evidence to the contrary need not be included; when it was time to put-up-or-shut up, Dirk and the Mavs fell short.

***

This Kansas team is not as talented as the previous two editions. That point has been repeated ad nauseum throughout the season, particularly during this dramatic run throughout the NCAA Tournament. Statistically, while they still rate out as an excellent basketball team (including the best 2-point FG% defense in the entire country), they don't possess the same amount of pizzazz. No incredibly efficient offense buzz-sawing through the competition; no gawking at the number of blowouts, where the difference between the two teams was made readily apparent minutes in. Without falling directly into the established media narrative, this team does not aim to amaze. They don't inspire awe with flawless offensive execution or wow with stretches of invincibility. Instead, they tend to play haphazardly on offense and, from time to time, post stretches of sheer incompetence.

Thomas Robinson is certainly a man amongst boys, a behemoth with an ever-developing post game capable of taking over a game against any team in the country, the indomitable frontline of Kentucky included. Beyond his other-worldly talents, they themselves not truly borne out until this season after spending two years on the pine biding his time, every other player in the Kansas rotation has an abundance of warts. Tyshawn Taylor has nasty fits with the turnover bug from time to time and, in case you hadn't yet heard, has yet to hit a three pointer either in this year's NCAA Tournament or in a dome in his entire career. Elijah Johnson has played brilliantly in March, but just a month before he was as inconsistent as they come, while Travis Releford, despite his best efforts, possesses a limited offensive skillset. Connor Teahan, while improving by leaps and bounds throughout the season defensively, still is a one-dimensional offensive player, while Jeff Withey has scored more than 11 points exactly once in the previous 12 games. Kevin Young is a wing stretched playing down low, and while his unending hustle is an asset he inevitably is bullied from time-to-time on the low block by burlier forwards.

On paper, this team would not be here. On paper, Bill Self's second Final Four would have occurred in 2010, and if not in 2010 then last year, when he had one of the more talented rosters in the entire country at his disposal. Despite all of the narratives depicting the contest as Good v. Evil, the traditional method of developing well-rounded student-athletes v. the money-grubbing design of the one-and-done model, Self's previous two squads resembled this Kentucky team more than they resemble the current Jayhawk edition. Yet they fell short, lacking the sort of unquantifiable ‘it' factor which will forever remain a mystery to statisticians.

***

This Kansas team is emphatically different from the rosters of years' past, that much has been made clear. Everyone, from those intimately involved in the program to national experts to the average college basketball fan, is well aware. Even without the numerous media entities consistently shoving the narrative down our collective throat, this much would be obvious. But the difference exists beyond simple talent comparisons, similar to the difference between the 06-07 Mavericks and last year's edition, who stunned the world by pulling off the relatively major upset of the crowned-too-soon Miami Heat. The feeling around the team was as different as the construction of the roster. The offensive juggernaut became tougher, highlighted by the increased physical nature of Dirk Nowitzki's play, adding complementary pieces more suited to the organizational philosophy. Throughout their 2011 playoffs run, the Mavericks consistently outperformed their opposition in crunch time, making the necessary plays to win time and time again. Much of this was attributed to the veteran makeup of the squad, led by the 38-year old Jason Kidd, and yet that's an oversimplification. I believe the real reason the Mavericks were so deadly at the end of games stems from their self-awareness, with the entire roster fully embracing their role and understanding their individual requirements to achieve the team-wide goal.

***

The more and more I thought about the parallel, the more I just could not get it out of my mind. This championship game is, more or less, the 2011 NBA Finals all over again. Kentucky is willingly playing the role of the villain Miami Heat, assimilating an unbeatable squad in a single offseason, including the acquisition of the nation's best player (LeBron James, Anthony Davis). They are the ones drawing the overblown ire of national columnists largely out of touch with the internal fabric of a particular sport, threatening to completely change the system and denigrate the sport's morality entirely. Of course, those claims are asinine, for if it was so easy for teams to merely acquire top-flight talent and meld them into a national championship-caliber team more than just Calipari would be testing the theory. In any case, the talent difference in these teams is not as grand as the national media would have you believe, nor is it as morally divisive. Yes, this Jayhawks team has overachieved. No, they were not expected to reach the Final Four this season, even infamously guaranteed to finish outside of the Top 5 of the same conference they've now won eight consecutive years by Jack Harry. But those statements are narrow-minded, focusing on high school accolades and future NBA potential. Teams, particularly at the collegiate level, and their quality is determined by more than simple talent evaluation. The Dallas Mavericks proved to be the better team over six games in June; simply because the pre-series narrative pitted them as the decisive underdogs does not preclude that fact. More talented, no. But better.

***

Talent-wise, this Kansas team would likely lose to just about every other unit Bill Self has placed on the floor throughout his tenure in Lawrence. Even the 08-09 team, having suffered a mass exodus following the 2008 National Championship, may have been more talented. And yet this may be the best team Self has ever had. They are as self-aware as any team in college basketball and moreso than any other Self-coached team. They feed the post relentlessly, prioritize fierce defense over everything else and never panic. In fact, it seems that throughout the NCAA Tournament they have been the ones calming Bill Self down, insisting that the next play is what is most important, fully believing in their capabilities. Whenever a stop has been necessary, it has been provided. Whenever free throws absolutely, positively must float through the net, they tickle the twine. Whenever a play must be made it is. Is that not the truest test of a team? When the game is on the line, who can execute. Who will make the play to win the game.

As fantastic of a coach Bill Self has been from his first day at the University of Kansas, his tenure has largely been defined by the failures of his seemingly unstoppable juggernauts in March, even after he won a title. Yet here he is, exceeding expectations by winning the way his previous teams never seemed to fully adopt; ugly. The Jayhawks have made numerous second half runs, including dramatic comebacks against Purdue and Ohio State, emphatically winning the final five minutes in every game of the Tournament. The countless offensive options present on previous editions are gone, removing talent but also providing a more distinguished identity to the roster. Connor Teahan shoots threes, Travis Releford is assigned the opposition's best perimeter player, Jeff Withey protects the rim at all costs, Kevin Young outhustles your average 9-year old after drinking a pitcher of Kool-Aid and Elijah Johnson helps out a bit everywhere while also paying homage to his numbersake Mario Chalmers by hitting a number of clutch shots. Thomas Robinson is the superstar emphasized in every offensive gameplan and Tyshawn Taylor, the most enigmatic player in my history of watching Kansas basketball, is provided a leash long enough to make sure the whole thing works.

Just like the Mavericks last season, and entirely unlike the 09-10 Jayhawks, this team is incredibly confident in all situations. They know what to do, they know where they need to be, they know what to expect.

***

No matter what else you take from this long-winded diatribe likely no one will actually read, please take this away: this team is freakin' awesome, as good as any other throughout Self's tenure. They are as self-aware as a team of college-aged kids can be, and it is this self-awareness that has led them to the mountaintop of college basketball. Now that they are here, they are met with a familiar foe, the villainous superpower wielding seemingly invincible powers. Whether they win or lose, this team will not falter down the stretch.

Kentucky very well may win the game, but Kansas will not lose it.

That much is certain.

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