The Kansas Jayhawks had every excuse they needed to lay down, go home, and accept their third upset in as many years last night in the NCAA Tournament.
On a night where similarities to the Northern Iowa and VCU games were impossible to ignore. KU comes out timid? Check. Opposing team builds an early lead by scorching the nets from downtown? Check. KU spends the rest of the game trying to erase that early double digit deficit? Check. KU begins to unravel, doing none of the things that brought the team to this point in the first place? Check. Late game, late in the shot clock, somewhat flukish, but very daggerrific three pointer? Che....wait, he missed it? Now, I'm not talking about the miss in the final seconds (as good a look as you can ask for in 2.5 seconds) or even Hummel's miss with Purdue trailing by 1. I'm talking about DJ Byrd's miss on his off-balanced, fadeaway 3 with just over a minute left to play (directly preceding the Elijah to Tyshawn alley-oop). That would've been the dagger. That's the shot both UNI and VCU were able to hit.
On a night where Thomas Robinson played his worst game of the season. I mean, he was lucky to draw iron on most of his shots (
not to mention taking 12 seconds to make it down the floor at times). Sure, the Boilermakers were packing the paint all night (triple teaming T-Robb at times), but I haven't seen The Slobb miss that many point blank shots all season (to be fair, I don't jump all in on KU until after football season, so my perspective is a bit skewed).
On a night where neither of KU's best players came to play. Tyshawn Taylor forced a few up and missed a few we're used to seeing him make. However, to his credit, he never lost his composure (which, undoubtedly, would have spelled the end for KU).
On a night where Conner Teahan, both deservedly and inexplicably, became the team's #1 offensive weapon for a key 10 minute stretch in the second half. This was in reaction to Robinson and Taylor's struggles. Teahan stroked a few in the first half, but was unable to answer the bell in the second half. On to the next one...
On a night where the team's most underachieving player, Elijah Johnson, seized the moment, and rewrote the story on his own KU career in a 3 minute stretch. I can't believe he took that shot. I can't believe he didn't drop his arms down and do Sam Cassell's cajones dance after he hit it. That was THE ultimate "Nooooooooooo, YESSSSSSSSSSS" shot. Make no mistake about it, this was Elijah's win. He hit the shot. He threw the oop. He made the steal. And he threw it down for the lead that KU never relinquished.
On a night where Jeff Withey put on his flashback face (located somewhere between his bad call face and his "I dominate you" face) and rehashed his Missouri miseries. "Jeff didn't go after the ball," Self said after the game, which basically means, "Withey didn't bring it." That also means, that with this team's season on the line, Self didn't want Withey in the game. It'll be interesting to see if Withey can regain his confidence, or if he can't, to see if KU will be able to alter their style on such short notice.
On a night where KU entrusted Kevin Young to slow down the opposition's best (and only) offensive weapon, Robbie Hummel.
On a night where Naadir Tharpe shot three 3-pointers. My biggest gripe with Self right now is that he insists on playing Tharpe in this NCAA Tournament, while refusing to play him the majority of the season. I can't make any sense of this fact.
On a night where Bill Self broke out his favorite NCAA Tournament gimmick, the Triangle and 2 defense, which stifled the limited Purdue offense throughout the second half. I LOVE how Bill Self never, ever uses this in the regular season, but isn't afraid to bust it out in the Tournament (most notably, against Davidson in the Elite 8 of 2008).
On a night where KU got lucky. Why? Because Purdue just isn't any good (two horrible offensive possessions down the stretch was your surest sign). You're not supposed to win an NCAA Tournament game when your two best players play that poorly (combining to shoot 6-23). KU shot under 34% for the game as a team. On the other side, Purdue's best player shot 9-13. They shot 8-18 from deep.
So, how did KU win?
Because on this night, KU showed legitimate toughness, grit and determination. Maybe this KU team is different after all. Maybe they have the heart to navigate this cruel Tournament. Maybe this is the ugly win that, seemingly, every National Champion has on the path to the title. Or maybe last night was just last night.
A night where somehow, someway KU survived and advanced.