NCAA Tournament

Jayhawks are great late in defeating Ohio State

The first television break is coming, literally any second now, but Bill Self won’t wait that long. He can’t wait that long. He sticks his fingers into his palm and calls timeout to scream at his Kansas basketball team.

WE TALKED ABOUT BEING WHO WE ARE! WE HAVEN’T BEEN WHO WE ARE YET!

All due respect, but by now, Self and the rest of us watching should know that part doesn’t come until later.

Offensive possessions that look like what the janitors clean up on Bourbon Street are exactly who the Jayhawks are early in games. Defense that leaves the other team wondering where all the oxygen went is exactly who the Jayhawks are late in games.

This is the familiar routine of what’s become a three- or four-month joyride for KU fans, one that continued with a gutsy 64-62 win over Ohio State and will end — one way or the other — against Kentucky in the national championship game on Monday in the Superdome.

This is the team that went from flaky to the Final Four, from a jumbled mess that Self called “not that good” after an unfathomable loss to Davidson at the Sprint Center in December to a rugged, gutty, muscular power that will play for a second title in Self’s nine seasons at Kansas.

When this season began, nobody could have expected the Jayhawks would have a chance at their fourth NCAA championship. You probably know the story by now. Their best player averaged 14 minutes last year. Four starters gone, and nobody much trusted the one who came back, Tyshawn Taylor. Three of the top four recruits were declared ineligible, meaning this was certainly the thinnest and perhaps least-talented team Self has coached at KU.

And now all of that is relevant only as context, as the past-tense description of what this team used to be. Today it is a power, one of two teams still playing because it has an All-American forward in Thomas Robinson and a fabulously talented point guard in Taylor and a bunch of other guys who play their brains out.

The whole thing sets up for what could be a classic on Monday: college basketball’s two most victorious programs, its two best players this season, its two best shot blockers, and two of the best coaches of the last decade.

After Kentucky beat Louisville in the other semifinal on Saturday, someone asked Cardinals coach Rick Pitino if the Wildcats were beatable. He said yes, but that Kentucky would have to play its B-game.

Bingo.

The Jayhawks still haven’t played their best in the NCAA Tournament but can become champions Monday because they don’t let anyone else play their best either.

“That’s kind of who we are,” Self said. “We’ve got to make other teams not be rhythmic, take away what they want to do. With Kentucky, you’ve got to take away layups. It sounds easy to say, but transition or second shots, you’ve got to take away lobs.”

Kentucky can make an argument as college basketball’s best team with a win on Monday. Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist might be the first two picks in this summer’s NBA draft. Terrence Jones will almost certainly join them in the first round, shaking the commissioner’s hand.

But if that happens — if the Wildcats have their championship and a historical case to make — they will have earned every second of the celebration.

Kentucky beat Kansas back in November, you probably remember, and over the next two days that game will be revisited and broken down and overanalyzed. Truth is, it’s probably not all that instructive. It happened before Thanksgiving, the second game of the season, and both teams are now very different and much better.

Elijah Johnson says his guys were “vulnerable” back then, not yet a team, still needing to figure out who and what it would become. Kentucky starts three freshmen, and one of them developed into the national player of the year in the 37 games since beating KU by 10 at Madison Square Garden.

The Wildcats won’t be blown away watching video of KU beating Ohio State. Probably won’t be blown away watching video of KU beating North Carolina either. Or North Carolina State. Or Purdue.

What won’t show up on that video — or at least what won’t translate as well — is that there is a method to all of this. Each of KU’s last four games has been within three points in the final three minutes. And while it’s taken some breaks for the Jayhawks to get here, it would be wildly false to call any of it a fluke.

Kentucky has the better highlight tape, more future earnings. Kansas has the better defense, more current muscle.

If this hasn’t always looked like you imagine championship teams to be, then you’re one game away from needing to change that vision.

One hundred and thirty eight nights ago, Kentucky and Kansas were tied at halftime. Davis dunked on the Wildcats’ first possession. Jones hit a jumper on their next one. Then another dunk by Davis, then a dunk by Jones, a three-pointer by Marquis Teague — 11 points on five possessions — and Kansas never made the game serious again.

Self was talking about that game late Saturday night. He said Kentucky “just wore us out the second half.”

Thing is, this Kansas team no longer wears out in the second half.

That’s not who they are anymore.

  Comments