It always ends with a loss. Those words are the ethos of the Mid Majority, but they apply neatly to the rest of college basketball as well. 344 teams in college basketball end their season by not winning a national championship. It always ends with a loss.
Except for when it doesn't. Last night the Kansas Jayhawks went out and represented themselves, the school, the fans and the sport the way they all deserve to be represented. The team, which I had called terrible on a number of occasions early in the year, went toe to toe with a group of soon to be NBAers and held their own for the entire game. And what's more, I think they did every thing they needed to to win the game. Kansas held the best offense in the country to just over a point per possession, and if not for Kentucky making some jumpers they normally wouldn't, and Kansas missing some layups and dunks, who knows what might have happened.
But this isn't just about last night. It's about this entire season. It's about how the coaching staff molded a group of young men into a team, and how those young men accepted their roles. The 2002 team will always be the hardest goodbye I've ever had because it was Boschee's last year, but the 2012 team is right there with them. At Kansas we have become a victim of our own success - this six year stretch is the winningest such stretch in college basketball history - and it was liberating to cheer for a team that faced no expectations and instead kept winning games despite having seemingly no reason to. While it's disappointing that they didn't come away with the ultimate prize they don't deserve any anger, any shoulda, coulda, woulda. They deserve our admiration and above all our gratitude:
Thank you to Kevin Young, who gave up the opportunity to be a star at Loyola Marymount to come to Kansas and come off the bench. Young went from a player who probably would have had trouble staying in front of me defensively to helping out on Jared Sullinger in the final four. He made some head scratching plays at times, but at all times played with the energy every fan thinks he would play with if lucky enough to wear that uniform.
Thank you to Conner Teahan for giving up scholarships to Missouri Valley schools to come to Kansas and sit for years, hoping it would pay off. This year it finally did, as Teahan hit huge threes in both of KU's biggest wins of the season.
Thank you to Travis Releford, who after scoring over 20 points in the first two Big 12 conference games of the year could have demanded the ball more and tried to be a main scorer. But he had the maturity to realize he was at his best when he was the team's best perimeter defender, a garbage man on the glass, and efficient scorer who was most valuable taking a handful of shots per game. Releford shot 60% from two this year, and had the 94th best offensive rating in the country. He will have to handle more of the offensive load next year, especially early in the season, but there's no doubt he can handle it.
Thank you to Elijah Johnson, who could have transfered to find more playing time, or complained that as a 5 star recruit he should have been getting the ball more. But he bided his time, stuck it out, and became probably KU's best all around player in the tournament. He shot 58% from two on the year, and over 40% from three in the tournament, and is not only one of the nicest kids to ever come through the KU program, but probably the prohibitive favorite for 2013 Big 12 player of the year. Unless....
Thank you to Jeff Withey, who went from gawky 7 footer who sat behind the Morri and Robinson to, well gawky 7 footer who dominated basketball games. Withey broke the record for blocks in an NCAA tournament as well as blocks in a season for both a KU and Big 12 player. Withey's 15.4% block rate was the best in college basketball, and he held Anthony Davis to just one field goal, a deep jumper, in the title game. In short, he was the best interior defender in college basketball, and he's only getting better offensively. Perhaps it is he who is the prohibitive favorite for 2013 Big 12 player of the year.
Thank you to Thomas Robinson, who overcame unthinkable personal adversity to post one of the best seasons in KU history. Robinson may not have won the official national player of the year but he was my player of the year and he was the person of the year. If there is a young man who deserves to make millions of dollars playing basketball, it's him. It won't bring back his mom, but hopefully he and his sister live as happy of lives as they possibly can.
Thank you to Tyshawn Taylor. Taylor was, unless I am mistaken, the first player to start all four years at KU under Bill Self, and he has become one of my favorite players ever. He treated playing at Kansas like a privilege, and every time he walked onto that court I got the sense that it was his favorite place in the world and he was happy to just be playing basketball. Tyshawn wore his emotions on his sleeve and for better or worse it seemed like I could always tell how he was feeling or what he was thinking. Tyshawn made some of the most athletic plays I've ever seen anyone make in a Kansas uniform, and embodied this year's team: tough, resilient, and willing to do anything to win. He's matured on the court, he's matured on the court and I feel privileged I've gotten to watch him do it. Both while he was shooting his final free throws at home against Missouri and in the final four against Ohio State I whispered, just before he went to shoot, I love you Tyshawn, and I'll say it again today. There will never be another Jeff Boschee, but it won't get any closer than Tyshawn Taylor.
Thank you to Bill Self and his staff. You've proven you can take teams loaded with lottery talent and get them to defend and play within your system, and now you've proven you can take a team at a talent and/or depth disadvantage in almost every one of their NCAA tournament games and make it all the way to the championship. Kansas could be stuck with an intramural team and I would feel confident that by season's end they would be a number 2 seed and be on their way to the final four. It's no coincidence that Kansas was at its best in the second half, and that in every game in the tournament they were able to take away what their opponent does best. Bill Self is no doubt the best coach in the country, and he deserves every single nice thing ever said about him.
And finally, thank you to Coach Manning and Coach Hinson. Each of your efforts have been indispensable to this program and you will be sorely miss. I hope each has tremendous success and hopefully we will see Tulsa and Southern Illinois on the schedule soon so you can each get the ovation you deserve.
A few assorted game notes are after the jump:
Kansas finally shot well from three (51%) but it just wasn't enough to overcome their 33% two point shooting. Their biggest problem though was allowing Kentucky to rebound 33% of their misses, which is too tough to overcome with an offense as good as that one. Without that they would have held them under a point per possession and maybe won the game.
The refs let a lot of things go both ways, which was maybe or maybe not better for Kansas, but I liked that it was called that way for purely aesthetic reasons. It's much more fun to watch basketball than a parade to the foul line. Still, it was frustrating to see KU players get mugged down low with nothing being called.
At one point I saw Kansas had missed 13 layups and dunks. Part of that is definitely due to Kentucky's great interior D, but it was a problem all tournament. The biggest problems were held by Thomas Robinson, who was just 6-17 from the field and shot under 40% from two for the tournament.
Defensively, Kansas basically did everything they needed to to win. They forced UK to take tough jumpers and Anthony Davis made only one field goal. But Michael Kidd-Gillchrist made a two with his feet on the line and when he does that there's just nothing you can do about it. A poor jump shooting night might have won the title, but it wasn't meant to be.
Looking ahead to next year, the lineup looks like this: Johnson/McLemore/Releford/Ellis/Withey with Tharpe, Andrew White and probably two of Jamari Traylor, Landen Lucas, Zach Peters and Kevin Young coming off the bench. They'll be deep, they'll be experienced, and they'll be talented. In short, they will be good enough to have the opportunity to play into April again next year, and hopefully there will be a much happier post on a Tuesday in April 2013.
I'm not sure if Owen has anything else planned for today, so for now just use this space to leave your favorite moments of the 2012 season, talk about expectations for next year, and if you're in the giving mood some ideas for posts you'd like to see here in the coming weeks.