At Kansas, members of the basketball program are thrust in front of the media twice a week during the season.
They answer countless questions. Some are naturals at the microphone; others grow into varying levels of comfort with the process.
But speaking to a group of the same 10-15 reporters week after week is one thing. Standing on the half-court line at Allen Fieldhouse on Senior Night, with 16,300 fans hanging on their every word?
That’s a horse of a different color.
And so it was that Tyshawn Taylor, despite maintaining a status as one of the most affable, honest and laid-back members of the current Jayhawks team with the media, found himself with a distracting number of butterflies fluttering away inside his stomach prior to Saturday night’s regular season finale with Texas.
“I think the focus was definitely on that speech,” the senior point guard said, with his trademark grin. “I was thinking about that speech a lot more than I should have during the game. But I think with everything going on and the emotions in the air, I think it was a little bit tougher to get up and be excited about this game in that it’s the last one for a lot of us.”
Three Jayhawks said goodbye to Allen Fieldhouse, in fact – Jordan Juenemann, Taylor and Conner Teahan.
Even with emotion weighing heavily on the seniors and junior Thomas Robinson – who has almost certainly played his final home game as well – Kansas endured, overcoming a sluggish and cold-shooting first half to down Texas, 73-63.
The Jayhawks built a 26-21 halftime lead largely on the strength of their defense, holding the Longhorns to just 36-percent from the floor and 16.7-percent from three. More importantly, Texas star J’Covan Brown was blanketed by a combination of Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and Taylor, scoring just four points before intermission.
However, Head Coach Bill Self’s squad was unable to capitalize fully. Robinson went just 3-of-10 from the floor in the first, scoring seven points, while Taylor added eight and Jeff Withey tabbed five.
Once the bell sounded for the second half, Brown immediately began to heat up, scoring a flurry of points and scoring a remarkable 29 in the half.
Kansas helped him, Self said, by sending him to the line so frequently (he was 12-of-13) from the line in the half, and allowing him to build confidence. With the start of post-season play looming, one piece for which the Jayhawks are still looking is a defensive stopper.
“We’ve gotta get a lock-down defender,” he explained. “Travis has got to become a lock-down defender, and that’s obviously not happening right now. Elijah has got to be better with that. You can’t ask Tyshawn to be a lock-down defender and then have to score all the time. It’s very apparent to me that’s something we’ve got to get better at real quick.”
Fortunately for the Jayhawks, Brown was the only one who did any real damage for the Longhorns offensively, accounting for eight of their 12 field goals in the second half. As a team, Texas shot just 38.7-percent from the field in the second half and 37.5-percent for the game.
Meanwhile, Kansas caught fire. Led by Robinson and Taylor as they have been all year, the two dynamic talents pitched in a combined 32 points after halftime, and 47 for the game.
Robinson logged yet another double-double, scoring 25 points and pulling down 14 boards, while Taylor dished out 4 assists and pilfered three steals. The Jayhawks shot a scorching 62.5-percent from the field in the second half, allowing them to grow the lead to double digits and secure the victory.
Afterward, Self acknowledged Robinson publicly during the Senior Night speeches, and allowed him to come forward and be acknowledged by the home crowd.
Because of his popularity with Kansas fans, Self said he received many requests to allow Robinson to speak. However, he cited the many other Kansas legends who left with eligibility remaining who weren’t permitted to do so, and felt that was a tradition best left for the seniors.
“But I do think he’s definitely worthy of being recognized,” he said, smiling. “And if he wants to talk, like I said, he can come back next year.”
With the regular season now behind them, Self called what the team had accomplished – a 16-2 league record – “pretty remarkable.” Always looking forward, however, he was quick to point out that the work remained unfinished, beginning next week with the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City.
“We’re going to try and validate our championship,” he said. “We’re going over there and (going to) try to win it.”
“This is the last home game, it’s not the last game,” Taylor added. “So I think we’ve all got that understood, and we’re trying to just keep it rolling and maybe do something special.”
When asked to compare this season’s team, which is in line for yet another one seed in the NCAA Tournament, with the dominant Kansas teams of the past two seasons – both of which were one seeds in the Big Dance as well – Taylor said this team felt hungrier.
“We’re going into this tournament with an edge,” he said. “Previous years, it’s like if such and such isn’t playing good we’ve still go this person. But when you know that you have to fight every night, you’re more comfortable with that.”
“And we’ve been thrown in (tough) situations before,” Robinson added. “Previous years we’ve had a good schedule, but this year we’ve been thrown into some tough battles that I know for sure that when things get rough I have people that are going to be on the court fighting with me. And I can live with that any day.”