“Yeah, yeah I think we’re getting tougher,” said Self after the 87-86 overtime win against Missouri. “But I don’t know if we get key stops. I still think the best teams get key stops. You watch a team like Kentucky, some teams that I’ve studied. One the thing about them they get in a tight game late the other team doesn’t score. We’re not at that point by any stretch. We can improve a lot there.”
Kansas is here playing on Monday in April because it did just that. During the postgame interview that memorable day in February Self also said Kentucky was hands down the best team and that Kansas was in that second tier of teams that could have a shot. Now the Jayhawks have their shot.
If you asked Self about his team’s intestinal fortitude now and ability to get stops when the game is on the line, he’d answer differently because this team is doing it at a high level. The Jayhawks have become one of those teams Self holds in the highest regard showcasing the ability to put the clamps on when the game is on the line. Self has been asked to compare the defensive prowess of the 2008 team to this one and has said 2008 gets the edge. Maybe so but the 2011-2012 Jayhawks are doing their best to minimize that margin during the month of March.
If you added up KU’s first half performances in this tournament the numbers wouldn’t be pretty. But take the second half and especially the last 5-7 minutes of game and the Jayhawks have been as good as anybody, yes, even Kentucky.
“I think we got to the point there's no question what we hang our hat on, that's defending rebound, be tough. That's kind of who we are,” Self continued. “If we make other teams not play well, then we have a chance to win. If we allow other teams to be comfortable, play well, we don't. That's what I meant by a non rhythmic game.”
Defense and desire just some of the reasons to believe KU can win this game. But there’s also plenty of talent on this Kansas roster to do some damage against the Wildcats.
“I think we're talented, too,” said Self. “We've got a guy that has kind of battled Anthony (Davis) neck and neck for the most part for National Player of the Year. We got guards that can play with anybody, in my opinion. We got a shot blocker that's hot right now. We got a wing that can guard. We've got a lot of nice pieces, too. It's just that theirs are a little bit more heralded. From where we started, our path to get here was different than theirs.”
Kentucky has been the clear favorite for most of the season and that’s not going to change during the last 24 hours of the season. Why wouldn’t the Cats be the heavy favorite? They’re not lacking for pure talent. It’s oozing out of Calipari’s squad and he could have 3 lottery picks on his roster. But KU has proven it can never be counted out.
Though KU may not be the ultra-talented group Self’s team has made up for it with incredible toughness and the will to win. It’s stronger than any Anthony Davis block or Terrence Jones dunk. Sheer desire and the ability to find a way is what this team has thrived on.
“They've got a great will to win. They're a veteran team, juniors and seniors, they've got a great will to win. It's been amazing,” said Calipari.
Facing the Wildcats is still a daunting task but this is not a best-of-7 series. It’s just one 40 minute contest for all the marbles. KU is looking to bust America’s brackets. John Calipari has 3 possible lottery picks on his roster and from Vegas to the Hudson River you can bet that the Wildcats will remain the popular pick.
“I mean, it doesn't bother us. They got high expectations, which they had a great year. So the expectations should be high for them,” acknowledged Tyshawn Taylor.
“If we stick to our script, do what we do best, we'll be fine. Can't listen to what people's predictions are. We have to guard them and play our game, so it's always going to come back to us,” said Thomas Robinson.
Kansas is not going to change what it does at this critical juncture.
If KU can find a way to keep Kentucky out of transition, not give up easy dunks, and maybe make UK more a jump shooting team you bet the Jayhawks will compete.
“I think what we think, though, is that we match up with them well. We feel confident going into this game. I think that's just what it comes down to. We don't listen to what people say about Kentucky. We just do what we got to do and I think we'll be fine,” said Taylor.
Flipping through the channels the other night, I got to watch the first KU game vs. Kentucky this season. The early season matchup at Madison Square Garden that was eventually won by Kentucky was interesting to see in hindsight. First of all, both teams have made great strides since then. It was a KU kind of game in the first half when the score was tied 28-28 but in the second half Kentucky exerted itself and won 75-65.
“If Kentucky plays their best, they're going to be so, so, so hard to beat by anybody if they play their best. It's easier said than done,” Self said. “We actually did a pretty good job the first time we played them. It was a muddy game, we defended well, we rebounded the ball pretty well. But the second half, when they were able to get going and get easy baskets, throw lobs and things like that, they manhandled us pretty good.”
So they meet again. Two teams that have come so far via different paths since the last meeting in November. Two programs with more all-time wins than any other going head-to-head for the hardware. Two coaches with Calipari trying to win his first title and avenge a 2008 loss to Self. Self trying to take another step up into the upper echelon of coaching with national championship number two. Two players that have been the best in the country with one of them crowned a national champion when it’s all said and done.