NCAA Tournament

Down and out? That’s when KU is at its best

Updated: 2013-03-25T18:42:51Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

Out there, panic. Frustration. A touch of fear. This is what happens in March, when the ball won’t go down and you start to picture yourself on one of those tearful montages.

But in the Kansas locker room, there is anger. Focus. A touch of swagger. This is what happens with the Kansas basketball players, when the stream is against them and they start to grow uncomfortable.

Bill Self is ticked. This is the way he and his players will later remember their most important halftime of the season. He screams, he rants, and then he leaves the room to let the players talk it out. Elijah Johnson asks his teammates what they want to do. Kevin Young says, Play. Jeff Withey asks if they want to play or enjoy a weekend.

The answer comes fast and certain and follows what has become a defining characteristic of this group. That anger, focus, and swagger turn their second NCAA Tournament game from disaster to party, a 70-58 win over North Carolina that put them into this week’s Sweet 16.

“People who blinked or turned the channel,” Johnson says, “they don’t even know what happened.”

Here’s a hint: the Jayhawks got challenged.

They are perhaps the best team in college basketball when this happens. A dangerous group with experience, athleticism, focus, poise and way too much defense. For whatever reason, they need to be pushed to show it. This is part of their identity now, both individually and as a group. Comfort does these guys no good.

For what it’s worth, Young doesn’t agree with this premise. Said it’s just a matter of the ball bouncing their way. Johnson said he wasn’t sure, then talked around the question.

There are a million factors and natural inconsistencies in this sport, but the evidence that KU needs discomfort is mounting. As a group, they played one of their best games in a win at Ohio State and some of their worst after rising to No. 1 in the coaches’ poll. When Bill Self talked about Topeka YMCA and they lost a third straight game, they responded by blowing out K-State and playing their way into another conference championship and a NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed.

They played so hard for that top seed, then drifted through their first game against Western Kentucky. They played timid in the first half against North Carolina, then what might be their best 20 minutes of the season in the second half.

Individually, it’s the same thing. Bill Self essentially challenged Withey’s manhood after the first Mizzou game last year, and that’s when he became a force and future millionaire. Self said his team didn’t have a point guard after the Oklahoma State loss, and two weeks later Johnson played the best game of his life.

Ease is trouble for these guys. Comfort creates problems. They are at their best when things around them are at their worst, and this is a heck of a way to go through March.

This is a hard thing to figure because, at least by KU standards, this isn’t a group with a privileged basketball upbringing. Withey decommitted from Louisville, then transferred away from Arizona to get here. Johnson was a five-star recruit but came off the bench his first two years.

Young started his career at Loyola Marymount, where they went 3-28 his freshman year. Releford had to redshirt at Kansas. McLemore might be the first pick in the next NBA Draft — yes, even still — but wasn’t a five-star high school recruit and had to sit out last year as a partial academic qualifier.

It isn’t a group you’d expect to need a push, but when they get it, they are nasty. This is especially true for Withey, who can seemingly dominate games with his natural gifts as a shot blocker and a learned mean streak.

North Carolina saw this. Intent on prolonging his last college season, Withey scored 16 points with 16 rebounds and five blocks. Releford has always felt good in this building, just a few miles from where he grew up, and played what Self called his best game as a Jayhawk: 22 points on just 13 shots, with eight rebounds, three steals and a barrel of emotion.

Both players mentioned the halftime regrouping as a key. This is the pattern for KU, and if you’re looking for signs they are mostly positive. The Jayhawks are about to begin five straight days of hearing about how Michigan has better guards and came from the better conference.

Sounds like a challenge.

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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