Jayhawks a reflection of Self

Jayhawks a reflection of Self

The 2011-2012 Kansas Jayhawks might not be Bill Self's best team. They're not his most talented or his deepest. But they might be the truest embodiment of his philosophy, thanks to a defense that at times resembles nothing so much as an active bear trap and a simple refusal to lose - much less panic - when everything is on the line.

Where basketball is concerned, Bill Self is big on control.

More specifically, he's big on the facets of the game his players can control, and do so no matter the situation. What happens when shooting hands frost over and lids snap down on the rims? Where does one look for a way to win the game?

To Self, the answer is simple. It can be found in qualities like effort and heart, or as they manifest themselves tangibly on the court, in defense and rebounding - in scrapping for loose balls and just plain wanting it more.

Give a team with great effort and willpower enough time, and they'll find a way to win more often than not - even if they have to pry that lid off the rim with their bare hands.

The concept of "Bill Self Basketball" is defined by these characteristics. And that's why this team, more than any other he has coached at the University of Kansas, is a reflection of him.

Great defense and Bill Self go together like chocolate and peanut butter. It's just something his teams do. If Self is on the sideline and the jerseys read "Kansas," the opponent is typically going to have a tough time putting the ball through the hoop.

It doesn't take a crack team of researchers to find proof. In 2011, the Jayhawks ranked 12th nationally in field goal percentage defense. In 2010 they ranked fourth, and 2009 - despite losing the overwhelming majority of the 2008 national championship team - they ranked fifth.

Oh, and that title team? Yeah, they ranked third.

So yes, Kansas guards. A lot. And in that regard this particular iteration of the Jayhawks is no different. The most significant statistical factor in their run to Monday's national title game is their defense - as they currently sit tied for second nationally with Michigan State (and oddly enough, their 2008 brethren) at 37.9-percent.

That being the case, what is it that makes these Jayhawks the ideal Bill Self team? Why them and not, say, the national championship team? Or last year's dominant - and insanely deep - squad that earned a one-seed and was, right up until the moment they lost to VCU in the Elite 8, arguably the best team in the country?

It's the stuff that can't be measured by statistics. It's the effort and the heart, the sheer will to win that spills out of them when their backs are against the wall. It's a reputation that took hold in late February, during an epic come-from-behind victory overtime victory over hated rival Missouri at Allen Fieldhouse, and it has proven itself true time and time again since.

Just look at their run through the NCAA tournament. After grinding out a 15-point victory - which sounds like a contradiction of terms - versus Detroit in the opening round, the Jayhawks looked ripe for an upset two days later versus 10-seed Purdue. Down 36-30 at half and with Boilermakers star Robbie Hummel operating at an NBA Jam level of heat from beyond the arc, Kansas could have panicked. They could have tightened up, and started casting frequent glances toward the game clock as the seconds slowly ticked away.

But they didn't. They bore down and put the clamps on defensively, shutting down Hummel and chipping away at the lead, bit by bit, basket by basket. Fueled by that defense, they claimed the lead and held it for less than a minute of total game time, but all that mattered was that they did so when the clock read zero. And so they survived, and advanced to the Sweet 16.

However, the story in St. Louis was the same. Faced with the 11-seed Wolfpack of North Carolina State, the Jayhawks once again struggled to hit water from a boat, and entered halftime down 33-32. But, as before, they kept their cool in a game that came down to the wire, ultimately walking away with a 60-57 victory.

Surely, however, this improbable road would run into a dead end in the Elite 8 versus the region's top seed, the North Carolina Tar Heels. At least, everyone outside the Kansas locker room seemed to think so. Even without the services of Cousy Award winner Kendall Marshall, the Tar Heels looked like a team put together by a coach with a McDonald's All-American tree in his back yard.

After a torrid half offensively to open the game - perhaps the only half of play that could be described as such for the Jayhawks during the entire NCAA tournament - Kansas again dug in and brought the pain defensively, only this time they did it to one of the nation's most potent offensive forces. And every time North Carolina would mount a rally and close the gap, Kansas had an answer - pushing the lead out just enough before breaking it open at the end and claiming a double-digit victory.

It was Saturday, however, that encapsulated this team's resilient spirit better than any other game to date.

Ohio State was a true juggernaut of a match-up, a legitimate threat to win the whole thing, and unlike earlier in the season when the Jayhawks defeated them in Lawrence, they were fully healthy - which meant Jared Sullinger was back in action.

And truthfully, in most ways the first half couldn't have gone worse for Self's squad. The Buckeyes defense kept Kansas from establishing anything resembling a rhythm offensively, while they shot almost 50-percent from the floor themselves. A late steal and a layup by Travis Releford as the horn sounded cut the lead to single digits, but this time everything felt different. The alarm klaxons were reverberating throughout Jayhawk Nation.

At this point, they should have known better than to doubt. Because, in a nutshell, the second half of their 64-62 victory over Ohio State is what sets this Kansas team apart from their predecessors - even the title team.

And they were great defensively. They were relentless and swarming, with one of the greatest pickpockets in Jayhawks history - Mario Chalmers - and a pair of shutdown, man-to-man defenders in Russell Robinson and Brandon Rush.

But they were also sleek and elegant offensively. Fueled by their defense and rebounding, they were a thing of beauty to watch on the fast break, spending as much time in the air catching lobs and jamming them home with their plethora of NBA athletes as they did with their sneakers on the ground. In the half-court they were surgical and precise.

There is nothing beautiful or elegant about the 2012 Kansas Jayhawks, outside of their record. Their latest comeback wasn't explosive, fueled by the scoring outbursts characteristic of great offensive teams.

It was deliberate. Workmanlike. And if each player hadn't found a way to contribute to the best of their ability, it simply would not have been possible.

Robinson awoke from his slumber, scoring 11 points and grabbing five rebounds. Releford hit four huge free throws in the game's waning moments, giving the Jayhawks the lead each time. Taylor dished out six assists and hit a pair of critical free throws of his own, and Johnson pumped in 11 points in just 13 minutes, going 5-of-6 from the field.

The real key, however, was the defense - a defense that held Ohio State to just 24.2-percent from the field in the final 20 minutes of play. And for that, much of the credit can go to Jeff Withey.

It's difficult to comprehend just how far the soft-spoken 7-footer from San Diego has come since the season began. What once was a man who needed to be angered by his coaches and teammates in the locker room before games just to ensure he played with the right frame of mind, has blossomed into an absolute defensive juggernaut.

On Saturday, he dominated Sullinger - a first-team All-American - down the stretch. That's no exaggeration. With his length and athleticism, Withey held the burly power forward to just 2-of-11 shooting. During one memorable sequence he blocked a pair of Sullinger's shot attempts, and in the process made the Buckeyes think twice - maybe three times - about even venturing into the lane.

Meanwhile, the Jayhawks kept hacking away at the lead, slowly but surely. At 2:48 they reclaimed it for the first time since leading 2-0 at the start of the game, on Releford's first set of free throws. They promptly lost it, then fell behind by three, before climbing the mountain again and taking it for good at the 1:37 mark.

This isn't Bill Self's best team. It certainly isn't his most talented. They don't do things prettily, or even easily - at least not lately.

But when the chips are down and the shots aren't falling, they are his most confident. His most relaxed and controlled. They find a way to give more effort, defend harder, get that one loose ball that could make the difference - and they trust that as long as they do these things, somehow they will come up on top. They believe this because Self tells them so, and he hasn't been wrong yet.

Whatever happens Monday, this season has already been a resounding success for Kansas. They've come farther than anyone believed they could in October, and are one game from a second national title under Self.

Kentucky is a monster. A big, fast, athletic monster loaded with future NBA players, who can overwhelm teams in the blink of an eye.

But the Jayhawks learned to stop fearing monsters a long time ago.

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