One team was supposed to be here, one team wasn’t. The latter could be said in more ways than one. But as Monday night’s national championship game beckons, Kentucky and Kansas are something of a study in contrasts from the standpoint of how they got to this point. While there will surely be a lot of talk of about recent history between these two teams and head coaches, a better subject is the contrast in the expectations many had of these teams, and how one of them has reached here in what was thought to be more of a rebuilding year than a contending one. In doing so, we find that Bill Self may have done his best coaching job yet.
“We have kind of flown under the radar, by Kansas standards of late, which I think has been very healthy for a team that’s just trying to find themselves,” said Self.
This year’s Kansas team didn’t strike the kind of fear into other teams that most Jayhawk teams do. Six of the top eight scorers were gone from last season’s team, and they took about 75 percent of the team’s scoring with them. As if that wasn’t enough, newcomers Ben McLemore, Jamari Traylor and Braeden Anderson were all partial qualifiers and could not play this season. McLemore figured to make an impact right away, while the other two figured to contribute as well, especially with a frontcourt that was unproven behind junior Thomas Robinson.
In short, a lot needed to happen for this to be anything like most seasons in Lawrence. And a lot has in order to get to this point.
Robinson would become one of the country’s best players, with most feeling the national Player of the Year is either him or Kentucky’s Anthony Davis. Tyshawn Taylor not only became an even better player than he already was and got past some of the growing pains he had last season, but he became a leader as well. With that, Elijah Johnson, who had his first career double-double on Saturday, developed into a dependable starter alongside him. Jeff Withey steadily improved from being a relative non-factor to a key man inside, and he blocked an NCAA semifinal-record seven shots on Saturday night. Travis Releford, a highly-touted prospect in high school who averaged less than nine minutes per game in his first two seasons in Lawrence (with a redshirt year sandwiched in between them), became a steady role player with an increased role. And Conner Teahen and Kevin Young have been serviceable backups.
Everyone has improved. In fact, the team’s first loss of the season is something that will be talked about leading up to this game. Kansas and Kentucky met back in November at the Champions Classic in New York. Kentucky won the game 75-65, and they did so going away. The Wildcats were the clearly better team and seemed to wear down the Jayhawks.
That was one more reason early on to think this wasn’t your typical Kansas team. But that changed a little starting with their trip to Maui immediately following that game, as they beat Georgetown and UCLA before a tough loss to Duke. A later loss to Davidson had Self concerned that the team was underachieving and not playing the way they needed to. But they followed that up with ten straight wins to close non-conference play and open the Big 12 slate.
Simply put, this team just got better from the beginning of the season, winning another Big 12 title.
“It don’t feel now like how it felt back then,” Johnson said. “Even being in the huddles, the quick timeouts and everything, it’s a total different team.”
“It’s remarkable to me to see how much these guys have matured, grown, trust each other,” Self said. “It’s been a blast to watch from the sidelines.”
This Jayhawk team isn’t very deep. They’re not as talented as past teams. A talented freshman guard, Naadir Tharpe, has played limited minutes with growing pains, looking like he is not quite ready yet. His limited minutes also speak to what Taylor has done – become an indispensable player they need on the floor. The Jayhawks have had to suspend him in the past, but he’s grown up, and Johnson even alluded to his leadership when talking about how this team has progressed. Now Taylor is helping to lead a team to an improbable run where they just find a way to win games.
“I felt like we were a couple steps away from being just as good as anybody else through the whole year,” said the senior guard. “I felt like we were missing just a couple different things that we had to tighten up and we could compete with everybody.”
On Monday night, they get one more chance to show exactly that, as well as how far this team has come from the start of the season. They weren’t supposed to be in this game, but they are, and Taylor’s feeling may prove to be more accurate than those of everyone else.