Is it just me, or does everyone seem to be talking about every Final Four team but Kansas right now? Understandably, the intrastate rivalry between Louisville and Kentucky, already an intense battle enhanced even more by Rick Pitino’s history on both sides of the fence, has been the focal point so far.
The Wildcats have the best player in country, a coach looking to finally get over the hump and a roster full of future NBAers, while the Cardinals have seemingly snuck up on the field after winning the Big East tournament and have rode that momentum to the Final Four the same way UConn did last season en route to the title.
Then, of course, there is Ohio State. The Buckeyes have also been in national spotlight themselves all season long, led by a Player of the Year candidate in his own right, Jared Sullinger. With Aaron Craft emerging as the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, a roster full of experienced, versatile players and Sullinger rounding into form, Ohio State has gotten plenty of play.
Meanwhile, it seems as though Kansas has been somewhat of an afterthought, that other Final Four team still in the mix. I’m not entirely sure why, given that Kansas is a two seed that pretty much everyone expected to be here once Kendall Marshall went down for UNC. Perhaps that may even be why no one is saying all that much about Bill Self and his crew right now — there wasn’t much to say about their Elite Eight victory once the Tar Heels lost their most important player.
I’m here to tell you there is plenty of reason to talk about the program with the second-most wins in NCAA history. For starters, the Jayhawks are led by their own Player of the Year candidate, All-American junior Thomas Robinson. Robinson doesn’t have the all-around otherworldly game that Kentucky’s Anthony Davis does, but what he does have is the passion, leadership and, oh by the way, a pretty damn good game that you want out of your leader. Robinson was a monster for Kansas this year, averaging 17.7 points and 11.8 rebounds during the regular season, and he’s been continuing that dominance in the tournament. The Big 12 Player of the Year has put his teammates on his back, averaging 16 points and 12.5 boards in tournament play. He can go toe-to-toe with Sullinger, and he won’t be afraid of Davis or Dieng.
But the Jayhawks are so much more than a one-man show. Alongside Robinson, Kansas has Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jeff Withey, a 7-foot center who patrols the paint. Guards Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and Conner Teahan, all upperclassmen, have each matured, progressed and provide stability. They won’t and don’t get rattled.
And perhaps most importantly, the Jayhawks have something none of the other three Final Four teams have: a senior running the point.
It’s true that Tyshawn Taylor has had an up-and-down career at Kansas. His talent is unquestioned, but, for whatever reason, the consistency just hasn’t been there. That includes this very season, where he’s wavered from looking like as a good of a lead guard as there is in country to a guy who just couldn’t do anything right. Hell, it’s continued in the NCAA tournament, where Taylor was quiet in the first two games, then shot a woeful 2-14 in the Sweet 16. But even during those struggles, Taylor kept his poise and found other ways to help the Jayhawks win, whether it was crashing the boards (ten rebounds against the Wolfpack), taking care of the ball (just two turnovers against Purdue) or working hard defensively.
Then, when his teammates really needed him to be the difference maker against a Carolina team minus its starting point guard and backup point guard (don’t forget about Dexter Strickland), Taylor was magnificent, netting a game-high 22 points and absolutely abusing Stilman White in the second half. That kind of performance showed what Taylor is capable of, and the way he has fought through his struggles all season — all four seasons at Kansas, really — to find ways to help the Jayhawks win gives Kansas an edge no other team has.
Don’t get me wrong; Craft, Marquis Teague, Peyton Siva, they all can play and play at an incredibly high level. In fact, I’m not sure any guard period is playing better than Siva right now, and Craft can affect a game without even taking a shot with his defense. But none of them have gone through and withstood what Taylor has in his collegiate career. He’s seen it all, been through it all and won’t get caught off-guard. Even if he struggles, he’ll work through it. It’s what comes with the territory of being a senior.
And finally, let’s not discount the Bill Self factor. Lest we forget, Self is the only coach left standing who can claim a national championship at his current school, and Pitino, who won at Kentucky, is the the only other one who has won the whole damn thing. As wonderful as John Calipari and Thad Matta are as coaches, they’ve never held up the hardware. Self has. He
had his first chance at Illinois recruited and built the squad at Illinois that lost to North Carolina in the title game with Bruce Weber as coach, and then watched as Mario Chalmers hit a shot that I’m sure still haunts John Calipari’s dreams, ultimately topping Memphis in the title game. The man is as a good as there is left, doing the impossible by building up Illinois — a program that just recently fired Bruce Weber for failing to replicate the recruiting success Self had there — and then keeping up and even surpassing the tradition Roy Williams had carried on when he left for his alma mater. This season has been a testament to that, with Self helping mold Kansas into the Big 12 regular season champions even after losing the Morris twins and promising freshman Josh Selby to the NBA, not to mention key starters Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar. Kansas wasn’t expected to be the class of the Big 12 with all those losses. That title went to Baylor, yet here we are, with Kansas one of just four college basketball teams still standing.
Kentucky is the rightful favorite. Ohio State was expected to be here. And Louisville is the hot team right now. But don’t sleep on the Jayhawks, because Kansas has everything you could hope for in a Final Four team and championship contender.