Final Four Buildup: Introducing The Kansas Jayhawks

TheSportsNotebook’s buildup to the Final Four continues today as we look at the Kansas Jayhawks. Just as we’ve done the last two days with Louisville and Ohio State, we’ll look at the personnel Kansas relies on, the path their season took and their modern history at the Final Four.

PERSONNEL: At the start of the season I thought Kansas was a two-man team, with Tyshawn Taylor at the point and Thomas Robinson in the post, and that they would struggle (by Kansas’ standards) in a rebuilding year. At the end of the season I still think Kansas is a two-man team, but the job Bill Self has done in fitting the role players around them is winning appropriate applause in the sports punditry these days.

Robinson is a beast in the paint, averaging 18 points and 12 rebounds. His muscular frame makes him virtually impossible to push around on the blocks. Taylor scores 17ppg and distributes the ball well. He hits nearly 50 percent of his shots inside the arc, and nearly 40 percent from downtown. What has to be figured out is why someone who can shoot the ball that well struggles from the foul line. Both Taylor and Robinson are sub-70 percent at the stripe, something that’s clearly a problem with Taylor handling the ball in an end-game situation or if the opposing defense wants to bring the Hack-A-Shaq strategy to the college ranks and apply it on Robinson. Elijah Johnson is the best of the rest, as he chips in ten points a game and is solid handling the ball—although his free throw shooting is only marginally better than Taylor’s. Travis Releford is a solid shooter in the 15-foot range, though not as much from three-point land and this is another KU starter who can’t hit his foul shots consistently. The only one who can is center Jeff Withey, the 7’0” junior whose job is to eat space and make opponents pay if they focus too much on Robinson. Withey can be up and down and when he’s up, Kansas is unstoppable in the low post. Sixth man Connor Teahan also gets time, although there’s nothing in his production levels that we need to keep an eye on.

SEASON ARC: Self didn’t waste time in booking quality opposition. Kansa went 3-2 before Thanksgiving, but two of the wins were over Georgetown and UCLA, while the losses were to Kentucky and Duke. Then the Jayhawks went 7-1, with an aggravating loss to Davidson, but a win over an Ohio State team missing Jared Sullinger and also victories over NCAA Tournament-bound teams in South Florida and Long Beach State.  Conference play started with seven straight wins, including a surprisingly easy win over Baylor in Phog Allen Fieldhouse. From January 28 to February 8 Kansas split four games. One of the losses was an epic battle at Missouri where they let a lead get away in the final two minutes. But the last of that stretch was yet another decisive win over Baylor, this one on the road. The Baylor win led into seven more, which was mostly a softer schedule, but included another epic battle with Missouri—this time Kansas won it, rallying from 19 down to take the win and the Big 12 championship in overtime.

In the conference tournament, Kansas knocked off Texas A&M, but lost to Baylor, as the Bears appeared to be finally getting their act together. For the Jayhawks though, that led to some sluggish play in the NCAA Tournament, and their survival to play this Saturday is one of March 2012’s great unsolved mysteries. They did everything they could to play their way out of wins against Purdue in the second round and N.C. State in the Sweet 16. Finally, the team stepped up against North Carolina last Sunday, with Robinson and Withey dominating a highly regarded Tar Heel front line.

FINAL FOUR HISTORY:  The focus here is the modern NCAA Tournament, which would start in 1976 after the Wooden Dynasty fell, though we’ll note that Kansas made Final Four appearances in 1971 and 1974, another contribution to a school with a rich basketball heritage. But it took until 1986 and the arrival of head coach Larry Brown, along with prize recruit Danny Manning, to get them back. A semi-final loss to Duke ended those dreams, but Brown and Manning returned for a last hurrah together in 1988. That year saw the Jayhawks start as a #6 seed, benefit from an upset-laden Midwest bracket, as they avoided the 1,2,3 seeds that season. Then the Final Four was in Kansas City where the team know to history as “Danny And the Miracles” beat top seeds Arizona and Oklahoma on a home-neutral court.

Roy Williams took over and made Final Four appearances, all of which can be read about in Memories Of March Madness. He reached in 1991, 1993, 2002 and 2003. The bookends of those appearances saw him make it to Monday night, though he fell short each time and then bolted for North Carolina. Kansas made it back in 2008 under Bill Self, winning a national title by taking out Williams and the Tar Heels on Saturday and then winning a stunning Monday night game against Memphis when they rallied from nine down with two minutes left, forced overtime on a three-point shot by current Miami Heat guard Mario Challmes and then won the championship. The 2008 Final Four was in New Orleans. Kansas is back. And the man who coached Memphis four years ago, John Calipari, is back as well, possibility with another showdown against Kansas looming.