'Enjoy the ride' more apt than ever

'Enjoy the ride' more apt than ever

With the selection show come and gone, the brackets hot off the presses, the headlong rush toward the Big Dance can begin in earnest. This year, Kansas fans would do well to follow the advice Head Coach Bill Self bestowed upon them before the season even began, and continue enjoying the remarkable ride the 2011-2012 season has been.

As a collective, Kansas fans have reached a point where they would make a legitimately fascinating case study for some psychology grad student looking for a thesis topic.

The 2012 NCAA tournament seedings are out, released hot off the presses Sunday night, and the Jayhawks were named the two-seed in the Midwest Region. It's a seeding that carries with it a few inherent advantages - location first and foremost among them.

Sure, Kansas fans Will Pretty much travel anywhere, but the general rule of "the closer the better" still applies. Friday, they'll tip off play in Omaha, Neb., and should they advance beyond the round of 32 they'll have to travel just four hours east on I-70 to regional action in St. Louis. It's fairly safe to say Jayhawk Nation will have both venues overflowing in Crimson and Blue.

But Jayhawks fans weren't thinking about that as the brackets were revealed from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Many of them were too busy looking at the pairings and working themselves up over having to face mid-major opponents Detroit and - potentially - St. Mary's in the first and second rounds.

This is a fan base that has been so scarred by losses to Bucknell, Bradley, Northern Iowa and VCU in recent years that the final headlong rush toward the start of tournament play carries with it as much angst as it does excitement. Because once those pairings are announced, to many among them the first shoe drops, and it's only a matter of time until the second follows.

Never mind that it has only been four years since the program won a National Championship. Never mind that it's Kansas they support, one of the game's truly elite. The cradle of college basketball. The second-winningest program in the sport, which had to make special arrangements in order to display all of its conference championship banners, consolidating them to keep the rafters of Allen Fieldhouse from looking like the back room of an overwrought dry cleaning business.

These fans support a program which has a combined five national championships - three in the NCAA Tournament Era - and yet for them mid-majors have become the monster that hides under the bed.

When looked at from a distance, it's all a little...surreal. And that's probably putting it politely.

Before the season, Head Coach Bill Self implored the 16,000-plus crammed into the Fieldhouse for Late Night in the Phog to enjoy the ride. Because he looked at his team and knew that for them to become great there was going to be a learning curve; one made even more difficult to surmount by the academic ineligibility of freshmen Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor, both of whom would have almost certainly contributed this season.

But they did it. There were rough patches - like the second half versus Kentucky, the final minutes with Duke and a bad loss to Davidson in Kansas City - but this team developed more quickly and completely than anyone could have anticipated.

Thomas Robinson became the Big 12 Player of the Year and a National Player of the Year candidate, a surefire All-American. Tyshawn Taylor joined him, becoming one of five finalists for the Cousy Award, given annually to the top point guard in the land, despite being left off the initial list. Jeff Withey grew into one of the most intimidating defensive presences in the country, and the whole thing just...worked. Somehow it worked.

And it's probably safe to say the lowered expectations with which most Kansas fans entered the season allowed them to enjoy the development of this squad more fully than any team in recent memory - assuming anecdotal evidence collected from social media outlets and Internet message boards is any indication.

But Sunday changed things. Sunday brought the abdominal butterflies back with savage ferocity, and one has to wonder why, because "enjoy the ride" isn't a mantra that ended with the regular season. This team has won all year long on the strength of two outstanding players, great team play and, of course, the staunch defense characteristic of all Bill Self-coached basketball teams.

But they had another ingredient in place as well. For the first time in years, Kansas was something other than a media darling and a popular pick for the national championship. Far from a lock for yet another conference title and a one-seed in the Big Dance, local media openly contested whether the Jayhawks could finish in the top half of the Big 12.

The result was a massive chip on the shoulders of the team, an edge and hunger to prove itself that can't be taught. It just has to be developed.

The team that will take the court Friday versus Detroit is still that team. A loss to Baylor in the Big 12 tournament semis doesn't suddenly transform a personality. And what happened in the past certainly isn't a guarantee of what will happen this weekend.

So breathe, Kansas fans. Rather than wait for the other shoe to fall, grab it, douse it in gasoline and set that sucker aflame. Then maybe bury it facedown in the backyard.

No opponent should be overlooked - and with the exception of the loss to Davidson, this team has overlooked no one all season - but Detroit is a team ranked 115th by the statistical wizard named Ken Pomeroy. The Titans lost 13 games during the regular season, rank 61st nationally in points per game, have difficulty rebounding the basketball and despite attempting 536 three-point shots on the season they connect on just 30.2-percent of those attempts.

All of that is a long-winded way of saying that Detroit is a team Kansas should beat, and do so comfortably. And if the St. Mary's Gaels - another talented mid-major squad - manage to top Purdue in their first game, the Jayhawks should win that one, too.

But if they don't it won't be because of what happened last year, or the year before. It will be because the opposition played a great game and crazy stuff happens in the NCAA tournament. It's part of what makes it so thrilling. The next few weeks are by the measure of many the best in the sporting world; including all-day affairs saturated with wall-to-wall college basketball and all the excitement and passion it engenders.

It would be a shame if Jayhawk Nation were to miss it because of time spent cringing at shadows.

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