The pressure of the NCAA Tournament is a game so fresh the point guards haven’t broken a sweat. The first three-pointer goes in, and already Bill Self’s face is red as he turns around to scream into the noise.
“HOW ABOUT THAT ONE!?! JUST LET ’EM GET COMFORTABLE!”
Didn’t take long to see all the familiar symptoms of a tearful and early NCAA Tournament loss for Kansas. Awful three-point shooting. A player on the other team who can’t miss. Bad decision making. Missed free throws.
This was every Kansas fan’s nightmare, a list of problems and pressures they’ve seen too many times before, a beast the Jayhawks have laid down in front of so often it’s become part of the program biography.
Then the craziest thing happened, something KU hasn’t seen much of in past years: Elijah Johnson goes big-shot and gives the Jayhawks their first lead in the final minutes of what eventually became a draining 63-60 win over Purdue in the round of 32 on Sunday.
Kansas shot 34 percent, and won. Self called that “unheard of.” His guys played tight, the All-America power forward going two-for-12 and the all-conference point guard struggling to get into the lane, and still won a tournament game. This made him smile. He called it, “the way we are.”
He also said he saw his players starting to feel pressure early in the first half.
“I feel relieved,” Self said of winning like this. “But I also feel some jubilation, too.”
You probably watched all of it, of course. Such unscripted drama has long been one of TV’s most valuable network commodities. But there are details missed on the screen, small but telling things you can only see from 10 feet away from the tensest place in sports: the heavy favorite’s bench as the underdog takes a swing in the NCAA Tournament.
This is where you see the worried look on KU senior Jordan Juenemann, who has stressed through early losses before. This is where you notice assistant coach Danny Manning standing up to scream the name of the play and the spot where the shot is coming from, only to drop his head when Purdue’s Robbie Hummel swishes it anyway.
This is where you see freshman Merv Lindsay, unable or unwilling to watch the game in front of him, turn his head away from the court, perhaps peeking through his fingers at the video screen at the end of the arena. This is where you hear Thomas Robinson, the All-American being double-teamed even without the ball, scream to his teammates.
“SHOOT THE BALL! THE WHOLE (EXPLETIVE) TEAM IS TAKING ME! SHOOT THE BALL!”
This is where you see Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger, his cheers muffled by press row protocol, shaking his leg and tapping his foot through the tightest moments. This is also where you see Self tell staffer Barry Hinson a joke under his breath, laughing even before he can finish, both men thankful for a momentary reprieve.
The NCAA Tournament has come to define college basketball seasons and teams and players, and especially coaches. And whenever you get close, the effect is striking. Nothing about it is normal. Nothing is easy. Point guards dribble off their feet, one good shooter airballs a three-pointer, and another one hits his first five.
Most times, this is the script for the powerhouse to become the extras in the underdog’s celebration video.
Except this time, the powerhouse swung back. This time, Self punched the air as Robinson blocked a shot when Purdue’s waterbug point guard took him one-on-one. This time, Lindsay jumped into the air, his knees nearly hitting his chest as Johnson swished a three-pointer that gave KU its first lead with about 3 minutes left.
Purdue called timeout, and that’s when Juenemann, by all appearances the most worried man on KU’s bench most of the night, bent over to the floor and pounded his right palm to the hardwood once, twice, three times and four, stopping only to put Christian Garrett into a bear hug.
This is the game Kansas usually loses. If anything can add to the inherent drama of this tournament, it is a historical power like KU dragging a tortured history that’s broken up every once in a while by successes like 2008.
Down 11 early after another Hummel three-pointer.
Down 10 in the second half after Conner Teahan’s airball.
Down three with two minutes left.
The nerdy projections pushed Purdue’s chances of winning over 50 percent in the first few minutes of the second half, but KU fans were way ahead of the computers on this one. They come by this worry honestly, after years of VCU and Northern Iowa and Bucknell and all the way back to UTEP.
Since before the first game last fall, Self has talked about how this group has a much smaller margin for error than past teams that started lottery picks and brought NBA players off the bench. That margin for error was never smaller than when KU called timeout with a minute left, Purdue up one.
Lewis Jackson dribbled out most of the shot clock. Tyshawn Taylor, who the day before said he hates chasing quick and small point guards, defended him all over the court. The clock ticked down, nerves jumped, and out came Johnson with the steal. He ran as fast as he could to the other end, laying it in and giving KU only its second lead with 23 seconds left.
From there, it was another scramble, Hummel missing a clean look on a three-pointer, Taylor sprinting out for a dunk with a few seconds left, the cheerleaders and bench and fans behind them jumping around in circles looking for hugs.
When Purdue’s final chance missed — an off-balance three-pointer at the buzzer — the Jayhawks celebrated like they just made the Final Four.
Someone threw the ball high into the air. Self and Robinson punched their fists into the air. Naadir Tharpe smiled and pointed to some friends in the stands he’d been exchanging glances with all night. Travis Releford threw his wristbands into the crowd. Cuss words turned from emphasizing panic to joy.
The pressure, finally, was gone.
For a few days, at least.