When it finally ended, Thomas Robinson took a deep breath and the Kansas basketball fans waved their wheat and Craig Sager asked Bill Self questions while wearing another ridiculous suit.
The Jayhawks are moving on, somehow, and that’s not only the most important thing but also the second- and third-most important things. Survive and advance, they say, and any college basketball team able to do that three times in a row in the NCAA Tournament can be proud.
But the question right now — the one the Jayhawks will be answering from reporters today and against North Carolina for a spot in the Final Four on Sunday — is how much longer can it be proud playing like this?
The Jayhawks are in a strange place after beating North Carolina State 60-57 in a Sweet 16 game here on Friday. They are winners, with a chance at the 14th Final Four in school history but so far in this tournament showing almost no resemblance to a team that should play on college basketball’s biggest stage.
No matter what happens in what could be a classic against Carolina, this KU season is a resounding success. An eighth consecutive regular-season conference title. Thirty wins. An Elite Eight. The comeback from 19 down against Missouri. All-America for Thomas Robinson, Big 12 co-coach of the year for Bill Self, remarkable growth for Tyshawn Taylor.
That’s how this season will be remembered. Mostly.
But now’s not the time for season wrap-ups, so if the Jayhawks keep going like they’ve been going, won’t you also remember that they were consistently underwhelming during the most important games?
In other words, a chunk of this relief should come with concern.
N.C. State had the ball and the chance to take the lead with fewer than 30 seconds to go. It also had a 50-50 loose ball that would’ve given the Wolfpack another chance. And a chance to tie it with fewer than 10 seconds left. Another one with 2.9.
Kansas survived all of it, and so it gets all of the credit, but this isn’t good enough for Carolina — regardless of Kendall Marshall’s wrist. Not even close. Carolina has four other NBA first-round picks who’ll play, the most talented team in the country aside from Kentucky, and you remember how that went for KU.
This is four games in a row the Jayhawks haven’t played well. Rocky against Purdue, slow against Detroit, hazy against Baylor. Taking confidence in being within a game of the Final Four despite bricked shots, tight nerves, and precious little from Taylor is a fine talking point but at some point it grows weary when the Jayhawks keep bricking shots, showing tight nerves, and not getting much from Taylor.
KU beat N.C. State because Robinson scored 18 points with 15 rebounds and Jeff Withey blocked 10 shots. The Jayhawks again played obsessive defense (N.C. State shot 28 percent) and made the most important plays.
They’re getting by on guts and defense and toughness, three critical strengths that have helped define them all season. For all its talent, Carolina has struggled against top defenses and KU is one of the nation’s best. These are all good signs.
But the Jayhawks will also have to play much cleaner than this for it to matter.
Taylor is six for 25 in the last two games. The Jayhawks have made just 14 of 67 three pointers (21 percent) since the Baylor game in the Big 12 tournament. They went the entire first half against N.C. State scoring just two points outside the paint.
So much of this can be solved by hitting a few jump shots. That’s probably an obvious statement, and not something to normally worry about except KU has come out noticeably tight in each of its three NCAA Tournament games.
Tight nerves mean bricked jumpers, and against Carolina, bricked jumpers will mean the season’s over.
Like a lot of teams, KU has tended to play to the level of its competition even as the players openly admit needing to get better about this. They were terrific against Missouri, played Duke down to the last minutes, fought Kentucky hard and flopped against Davidson, scuffled against Purdue, needed time to get going against Detroit.
Now, KU’s season depends on that trend holding. No more mid-majors or double-digit seeded majors the Jayhawks have to talk themselves into taking seriously. Carolina is stacked with past blue chippers and future millionaires, so if the traditional form holds, the Tar Heels will have the Jayhawks’ full attention and best effort.
They better, anyway, because what KU has shown so far will bring an abrupt ending on Sunday.