NCAA Tournament 2012: Kansas Fans, Relax, the Jayhawks Just Might Win It All
Having Bill Self as a coach is both a blessing and a curse. Blessing because Self does not have down years. Every year the Jayhawks are in the mix for a deep run.
The curse? Every year the Jayhawks are in the mix for a deep run.
Bucknell, Bradley, Northern Iowa and VCU hurt as much as they did because of the high expectations going into the tourney.
I am at the point as a Jayhawks fan where I am not even scared by major conference teams. On the other hand, the Midwest region, which should be a fairly favorable region loaded with mid-majors, absolutely terrifies me. I can just picture the St. Mary's upset, the Belmont upset, or, God forbid, the "Detroit-are-you-kidding-me-a-No.-15-seed-just-beat-us?!?" nightmare scenario.
To all the Jayhawks fans, I understand if you are hyperventilating right now and are going to sleep a total of four hours until Friday. I'm with you. I feel your pain. But I come to you with some hope.
It's Detroit Mercy Not the 2004 Detroit Pistons
Why This Is Unpleasant: The last two winners of the Horizon league went to the NCAA Finals (Butler).
Detroit, the city as a whole, has a lot of momentum right now. The Lions are turning things around, Prince Fielder's coming to the Tigers and you can't forget about the Clint Eastwood "Halftime in America" commercial.
Even the Pistons are pulling things together!
In actual basketball analysis, Detroit has five guys averaging in double figures, two legitimate big men and good guard play. Ray McCallum Jr. could just as well be starting for some of the top-dog teams from major conferences. This is by no means a pleasant start to the tournament.
Why The Jayhawks Will Be Fine: Sunday night's ESPN talk of Detroit possibly pulling off the upset and the subsequent regurgitation to follow all week long over the Internet will fuel the Jayhawks. Kansas is not going to overlook Detroit and will come out angry, with a chip on their shoulders.
There is a difference between having all the pressure in the world on your shoulders because everyone has picked you to win the title vs. having the motivation to prove the people wrong who are betting against you.
The Jayhawks Have Not Lost Back-to-Back Games in Six Years
Kansas ended its season on a loss to Baylor. The last time Kansas lost back-to-back games was on January 16, 2006.
However, the 2005-06 season ended with a loss to Bradley in the first round at the Palace of Auburn Hills. The Detroit Pistons play there. Detroit Mercy is Detroit. I just lost 10 pounds.
Detroit's Ray McCallum Jr. Is Not Michael Jordan
A lot is being made of Detroit's Ray McCallum Jr. Now, granted, the praise is not unwarranted—McCallum Jr. was recruited by Kansas and could start on almost any team in the country. But let's not get carried away here.
This is a little mystery Player A, Player B, Player C game.
Player A: 15.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.9 apg, 1.5 spg, 2.3 turnovers per game. Height: 6'2''
Player B: 20.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.2 spg, 2.6 turnovers per game. Height: 6'1''
Player C: 17.3 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 4.8 apg, 1.2 spg, 3.5 turnovers per game. Height: 6'3''
Player B is J'Covan Brown of Texas. The last time the Jayhawks played the Longhorns, Brown got his 33, but the rest of the Texas team was held to 30.
Player C is Tyshawn Taylor meaning Player A is McCallum Jr. Detroit needs to be worried about stopping Taylor, not the other way around.
Expect Self to implement the same type of strategy they did against Brown. McCallum Jr. will probably score 25, but look for the stifling Jayhawks defense to hold the rest of the Titans to 35 or less.
Kansas Jayhawks Have 2011 Dallas Mavericks Syndrome
The trendy upset pick in the 2011 NBA playoffs was the Portland Trailblazers over the Dallas Mavericks.
It is becoming trendy right now to have anyone in the bottom half of the Midwest bracket upset the Jayhawks. The problem with upset picks is once they gain too much steam, it diminishes the chance of it actually happening.
The upsets people predict to happen backfire, because it motivates the favorite. The upsets that actually do happen are the ones nobody sees coming. For example, VCU last year. Connecticut beating Kentucky or Michigan State losing to St. Louis would both be upsets because no one is talking about them happening.
Jeff Withey Gives the Jayhawks a True Center
Last season, the Jayhawks did not have a traditional frontcourt. Markieff Morris was really a power forward who liked to step out and shoot threes. Marcus Morris was transitioning into a small forward and Brady Morningstar was a true shooting guard.
Having a true center like Jeff Withey makes a big difference in March. Especially against mid-major teams. Think back to Kansas vs. Davidson in 2008, and how important Sasha Kaun's 13 points on 6-6 shooting was for the Jayhawks.
Detroit, St. Mary's, Belmont and any other mid-major team traditionally thrive off of good guard play. Very few of them have size.
Look for Withey to have at least one 20-point game in this tournament. Remember that not too long ago Withey had his monster 18-point, 20-rebound game against Oklahoma State.
Elijah Johnson and the Importance of a Third-Scorer
Elijah Johnson is an extremely important part of the Jayhawks' starting five. In the last two games, Johnson scored 26 and 15.
There will be a night in the tournament when Tyshawn Taylor is out of control and his shooting is off. Look for Johnson to step in and pick up the slack.
Also, Johnson covers up the Jayhawks' lack of depth. Bill Self slides Johnson over to point guard if Taylor needs a rest or is in foul trouble and Connor Teahan comes in to play shooting guard. This gives Self a guaranteed 40 minutes of solid point guard play even without having a backup point guard.
Come tournament time, expect Taylor to be getting about 37 minutes a night and Johnson right behind at 35.
Travis Releford the Physical Perimeter Defender
Travis Releford is always solid. He has good size and plays aggressive defense.
On offense, Releford is not called on to score, but he rarely makes mistakes. In the last nine games, Releford had a total of four turnovers.
Conner Teahan: The Zone Killer
The Bad News: Conner Teahan is riding into the tournament on two straight zero-point games. He has scored a total of eight points since his stellar performance in the Missouri win.
The Good News: He was around for the Kansas National Championship team. He has seen what it takes to win it all but has also seen what it's like to come up short in the last couple years. Teahan will be a great voice to have in the locker room.
The plus side of Teahan is he can get hot from behind the arc. If a team is throwing a zone at Kansas (think Syracuse's 2-3) Teahan can shoot the Jayhawks out of it. Against Missouri, Teahan went 4-4 from behind the arc.
Because of the solid play and endurance of Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford, Self has the luxury to ride Teahan if he is shooting well or keep him on the bench on an off night. He only needs Teahan for 15-18 minutes of backup action, but if Teahan catches fire, he stays on the court like his 37 minutes against Missouri.
Oh Wait, Kansas Has the National Player of the Year
It's hard to believe I can reach slide eight before mentioning Thomas Robinson.
Robinson has been steady all year long. The only other Kansas big men I can remember being this consistently great in my lifetime are Nick Collison, Drew Gooden and Wayne Simien. All three of those men had their tastes of Final Fours.
The 17.9 ppg and 11.8 rpg says a lot, but what is even more impressive to me is Robinson has only been held under 10 points once this season, and in that game, he had nine points because he played 22 minutes in an 89-34 route of Howard.
Robinson has been doing this all with the pressure of being in the running for National Player of The Year and having defenses gameplan to stop him. His 28-point, 12-rebound performance with the game-tying basket and the monster block against Missouri showed his ability to play his best when the pressure is on.
Tyshawn Taylor: Possible Tournament MVP
Under the radar, Tyshawn Taylor played really well in last year's NCAA tournament. He averaged 11.7 ppg, 5.2 apg and 2.7 turnovers per game in 27.5 minutes of action.
This year, he will be on the floor 10 more minutes a night and while this might lead to a few more turnovers, I expect Taylor to be playing at a 20-point, six-assists-a-night level.
With all of the attention put on stopping Thomas Robinson, Taylor has emerged in the last third of the season as Kansas's top threat. Here is a look at his stats in the last 10 games:
18.1 ppg, 4.0 apg, 2.9 turnovers per game.
The Turnover Issue: Tyshawn Taylor plays at such a fast pace that you have to expect about three turnovers a night. He tries to make things happen and you have to live with a few of the bad plays.
Against Duke, he had a miserable 11 turnovers, but don't forget that against all the talent of Kentucky, Taylor recorded 22 points and zero turnovers.
Taylor is playing great right now, he takes his game up a level in the tournament, and his senior leadership is vital to have at the point guard position for nearly 40 minutes a night.
Bill Self Is Still a Great Coach
It is easy to get down on Bill Self because of the losses to Bucknell, Bradley, Northern Iowa and VCU. But allow me to defend all four of those losses.
Bucknell - He still had Roy Williams' players. All year long, the plan was basically to get the ball to Wayne Simien and stand around. Keith Langford was battling injuries and you didn't get the sense the team wanted to play for Self.
Bradley - Self brings in his first group of recruits (Darnell Jackson, Brandon Rush, Julian Wright, Russell Robinson, Mario Chalmers, Sasha Kaun) and takes them from a 3-4 start to a 25-6 regular season finish, Big 12 tournament victory and a No. 4 seed.
Unfortunately, they were paired up against a quality Bradley team who hit 11 three-pointers. Two years later, Self's guys won a National Championship.
Northern Iowa - This is the hardest one to justify. However, I will say this, the team relied too much on Sherron Collins. Collins was expected to do everything offensively, and that is hard to do as an undersized guard.
VCU - Again, hard to justify, but remember this took place in the Elite Eight, not the first or second round.
Self has taken the Jayhawks to three Elite Eights since he started. He is one of the best X's and O's guys in all of college basketball and still remains a great motivator. Yes, his weakness seems to be mid-majors, but remember, before 2008 his weakness was always, "He can't take a team to the Final Four."
Self will have the Jayhawks ready to play.
You Don't Have to Be the Best to Win March Madness
Does anyone really believe that if we started last year's tournament again we would end up with the same Final Four of Butler, VCU, Connecticut and Kentucky?
In the NBA playoffs, you find the best team. You can't fake your way through a seven-game series. However, in March Madness, you find the team that was best able to navigate through all of the chaos.
In previous years, this sucked for the Jayhawks. Northern Iowa was not the better team nor was VCU, but on that given day, they were superior. This year, Kentucky, Syracuse and Michigan State have to deal with the pressure.
In a realistic basketball universe, Kentucky wins the championship. In the crazy world that is March Madness, Kentucky might lose second round to Connecticut. There is no way to predict what Goliaths will fall to what Davids, and sometimes teams sneak their way into the Final Four.
Kansas could be the sneaky team this year. Of the four brackets, ours is the most favorable (yes, it seems like a mid-major mine field, but be thankful the Jayhawks don't have Louisville, Florida State, Vanderbilt or Kentucky to deal with in the regional).
I don't think this Jayhawks team comes close to the top five teams of my lifetime. 2007-08 was the best, 1997 was close behind, 2002 and 2003 were both better and you could make the case that 2006, 2009 and 2010 were superior. But that doesn't matter. It all comes down to whether or not your team gets hot at the right time.
For the Kansas Jayhawks, I think their streak begins Friday.