NCAA Tournament

Not winning Big 12 tourney may be blessing in disguise for KU

Updated: 2012-03-19T20:17:32Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

— There is no way to prove this, no way to know for sure. This is speculation mixed with hindsight mixed with conjecture, but it is circulating through the minds of enough people in and around the Kansas basketball program that there has to be something to it:

The Jayhawks are still here playing in the NCAA Tournament at least in part because they flopped last week in Kansas City.

That’s the conclusion many here are making, anyway. For evidence, they bring up Missouri’s loss to No. 15 seed Norfolk State less than a week after celebrating the Big 12 tournament championship with a rare level of emotion.

This is a bit like doing a wild bachelor party the night before a big job interview. You’re better off in the long run skipping the bash.

“I mean, I think so,” KU forward Thomas Robinson says. “… I do know that if we would’ve played Missouri, it probably would’ve taken a lot of emotion out of us, then we have to turn around and come back to get ready for the tournament.”

Don’t get this twisted. Nobody around KU is happy they lost to Baylor in the Big 12 tournament semifinal. KU wasn’t good enough last week, and Conner Teahan called it “a painful experience” watching Mizzou’s celebration on TV.

He and his teammates heard the SEC chants and watched the dance-offs and read MU’s players staking official claim to Kansas City. If they got on Twitter, maybe they saw Kim English holding the trophy above his head while wearing an SEC shirt.

Six days later, they saw MU become the fifth No. 2 seed to lose its first game since the tournament expanded in 1985.

Don’t you wonder if MU simply had nothing left?

The Tigers were good offensively against Norfolk State, but empty on defense, unable to — as coaches like to say — make the other team play bad.

Norfolk State had an emotional end to its own conference tournament championship, earning the first NCAA appearance in school history. But it was nothing like the historical and personal and prideful baggage that got attached to Missouri leaving the Big 12.

If KU would’ve played Mizzou in that tournament final, the passion would’ve been exponentially higher.

This is a rivalry driven mostly by history and fans, but as we’ve seen, those feelings seep into the players involved. So how sharp or energetic could Kansas have been playing less than a week later?

“There’s a lot of emotion that goes into that,” KU center Jeff Withey says.

To be sure, some of this is formulaic. Teams that lose always say they’ve learned from it, and if the Jayhawks needed to focus and see their flaws be exposed, then losing to Baylor might be a good thing regardless of this year’s realignment context.

This exact situation has no precedent, which is why this is all so speculative, and it should be noted that KU won its last national championship after winning the Big 12 tournament and lost to Bucknell after losing in the conference semifinals.

But in terms of emotional investment, the closest conference tournament precedent might be 2006, when the Jayhawks put so much into beating Texas in the championship and then promptly lost to Bradley in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

That was a mostly freshman team — the first year for Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers and Julian Wright — with flaws and a No. 4 seed, but the same forces are at work here.

This is a strange thing, then, a missed opportunity to protect the Big 12 flag against their fiercest rival in a game they’d all remember the rest of their lives actually turning into a positive.

By not being good enough to play Missouri last week, the Jayhawks are better prepared to play the NCAA Tournament this week.

Or, at least, that’s what the people in and around this program believe today.

That fact alone has to count for something.

“All I know is that for this team, what we needed, right now, (losing) that game helped us out,” Teahan says. “But we’ve only played one game (since). We’ll see how it plays out from here on.”

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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