NCAA Tournament

Sam Mellinger | KU underdogs? Don't fall for it

The prevailing story line around these Jayhawks is overdone and silly by now, and here’s how you know it’s overdone and silly:

Nobody seems to realize it’s overdone and silly.

This is Kansas basketball, after all, talking and being talked about like it’s something closer to UMKC. How many other places could pull this off?

How many programs could have a top-five NBA pick, an all-conference senior starting alongside a five-star recruit in the backcourt, one of the nation’s best coaches, a preseason ranking in the top 15 — and still be able to present itself like Hickory High?

Only under the absurd standards of Kansas basketball can a four-year starting point guard play with a power forward who turned down a first-round spot in the NBA draft and call it a “down year.”

And only in a sports world where people fight over the no-respect rhetoric and the first story line tends to stick way past the expiration date could a 31-6 team that won a six-bid league by two games and made the Final Four with a consensus All-America create sound bites like these:

“We’ve liked having the underdog role,” Jeff Withey says.

“Nobody thought we could do it,” Travis Releford says.

“Proving people wrong,” Tyshawn Taylor says.

Is this really happening?

Various simulations brackets

submitted on, KU was the third-most popular Final Four pick. It was the betting favorite against North Carolina.

So can we put to rest the idea that nobody has believed in this team?


Look, we can all see where this came from. KU lost four starters, including its top three scorers and two first-round picks. KU began the season ranked 13th, terrific for most schools but the lowest in three years for Lawrence.

Before the season, you heard about Kansas relying on a forward who averaged 14 minutes last year and a point guard who nobody trusted and who else, exactly?

The story has been told about how far this team has come, and all of it is true. About Larry Brown watching an early practice and hoping for a .500 record. About a Big 12 official working a preseason scrimmage and telling Bill Self the best player on the floor was former walk-on Brady Morningstar.

About Self genuinely not knowing if his team had a chance during the first few weeks, appreciating the Ohio State win in December because it might be KU’s ticket to the NCAA Tournament, and then saying “this team is not that good” after the Davidson loss.

All of that is true. So is this:

The team from all those stories holds only a vague resemblance to the one that will play Ohio State tonight for a spot in Monday’s national championship game. KU has been in the top 20 all season, the top 10 since mid-January and the top five for most of the time since.

Robinson is no longer the unproven guy with potential; he’s a legitimate college superstar whose jersey will be hung in the Allen Fieldhouse rafters.

Taylor is no longer the flaky head case who can’t be trusted; he’s an all-conference point guard who can change games on defense or offense and will be in the NBA next year.

Jeff Withey is no longer the team’s fifth-best post player; he’s the school’s record-holder for blocks in a season and the league’s defensive player of the year.

Elijah Johnson is no longer a blue-chip insurance policy; he’s beating Purdue with big shots and averaging 15.8 points over the last six games.

In other words, it’s time to forget the perception that most of us — Self included — had of this team three months ago. That perception is old. Outdated. Expired. It no longer applies, because this is one of college basketball’s best teams playing on its sport’s biggest stage.

I tried to make some of these points in the KU locker room on Friday. Conner Teahan allowed that the underdog label “might be” overplayed, but that’s as close as I heard to anyone agreeing with me. Three other players and two coaches talked about this underdog thing like it’s still legitimate, that people genuinely think KU has no business being in the Final Four.

“Whenever you watch TV, I feel like everybody’s always picking the other team,” Withey says. “I guess our games haven’t convinced people enough.”

That’s when I tell Withey about some of these numbers, about KU being the third-most popular Final Four pick by fans and about

ESPN’s experts

picking Kansas to come out of the Midwest regional by a two-to-one ratio.

Withey pauses. Looks up.


“We like the mind-set of the underdogs,” he says. “Don’t curse that for us.”

Fair enough. Just as long as the rest of us can recognize that the label they’re feeding on was given to the team they used to be, and not the one they’ve become.