Not easy. Don’t use that word. Or, at least, don’t use it in earshot of Bill Self or his Kansas basketball players.
Easy games do not make Self’s face match his crimson necktie. Easy games do not make him scream and cuss and, at one point, wonder out loud if his players are hearing a single word of it.
So, no. Easy is not the right description for No. 2 seed Kansas’ 65-50 win over No. 15 Detroit in the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
Controlled is better. Comfortable. Largely stress-free.
And that’s how it’s supposed to be. Remember?
“I’m happy for our guys,” Self said. “It was a good win, especially in a crazy day in the tournament.”
A mundane tournament turned mad on Friday, with two No. 2 seeds – Missouri and Duke – losing. That had never happened before. Only four No. 2 seeds had ever lost their first game since the tournament expanded in 1985.
For Kansas, maybe this was the best possible scenario – and not just for the fans gloating on Twitter. KU’s players have a well-earned and self-acknowledged reputation for taking schools with lower profiles lightly, so if the highlight tape of Detroit’s dunks this season – Self says it’s as good as Baylor’s – didn’t get their attention, then surely the reality of becoming another March casualty did.
Self’s pregame speech ended in the last minute of the Duke loss.
“We didn’t talk about it, make it a big deal,” KU junior Thomas Robinson said. “But it did wake us up a little bit, give us energy for the game.”
KU was not great. If this team is to end up in the Final Four, it will have to be better at some point, perhaps as soon as Sunday night’s game against No. 10 Purdue. The Jayhawks took some bad shots, made some bad passes, and generally contributed to a few more highlights for that tape Self talks about.
But KU did enough. Thomas Robinson had 16 points and 13 rebounds, a nation’s-best 24th double-double, and even if it didn’t count, the dunk of the night on a one-handed ally-oop after a whistle.
Robinson gets the most attention, followed closely by Tyshawn Taylor – who says he’ll be recovered from leg cramps by Sunday night – but this team’s hopes are built in large part on defense.
The Jayhawks suffocated Detroit, holding the Titans to 32 percent shooting. A 34-7 run put the game out of reach, but it came over a stretch of almost 16 minutes. Detroit missed all but two of 21 shots.
KU will play better teams than Detroit, of course, but when Self talks about wanting his team to take a tough identity on defense, this is close to what he’s talking about.
“We played one of the truly great teams in the country,” Detroit coach Ray McCallum Sr. said.
“I went out against one of the top teams in the country, one of the best bigs in the country,” Detroit senior Eli Holman said.
After it ended, Self called this a “strange” game. He thought Detroit outplayed KU the first 10 minutes or so, and if you saw the coach on the sideline, it was obvious he wanted better. He’s been on the wrong end of big upsets before, and says the common denominator is allowing the underdog to get comfortable. Detroit, he thought, got comfortable early.
So there are points he will emphasize now. The Jayhawks were outrebounded despite missing 14 fewer shots, for instance.
But the most important thing is that they have at least two more days to emphasize. Actually, that’s the only thing.
After Friday, as much as any day in NCAA Tournament history, the Jayhawks know this well.
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.