Press might have saved Jayhawks

University of Northern Iowa's Adam Koch (34), left, and Kansas guard Xavier Henry (1) run for a loose Saturday, March 20, 2010, in Oklahoma City.

University of Northern Iowa's Adam Koch (34), left, and Kansas guard Xavier Henry (1) run for a loose Saturday, March 20, 2010, in Oklahoma City.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

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Kansas falls to Northern Iowa

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The Jayhawks lost to the Panthers Saturday in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Kansas ended its season 33-3.

Reader poll

Which NCAA Tournament loss in the last 20 years stung the most?

  • 1997 Arizona 23% 1698 votes
  • 1998 Rhode Island 4% 323 votes
  • 2005 Bucknell 14% 1041 votes
  • 2006 Bradley 2% 184 votes
  • 2010 Northern Iowa 54% 3978 votes
  • Other 1% 124 votes

7348 total votes.

Audio clips

2010 KU-Northern Iowa

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— So on top of his trade is Bill Self that he opens himself up to legitimate second-guessing only slightly more often than Halley’s Comet appears, which is about as often as a college basketball coach being asked why he doesn’t apply full-court pressure more often qualifies as a fair question.

Two Halley’s Comets collided in one day, and it happened to be the day Kansas, the nation’s No. 1-ranked team, faced a pack of Northern Iowa shooters who couldn’t miss on the way to a 69-67 upset Saturday in the Ford Center.

The Missouri Valley Conference school that spent much of the season in the Top 25 doesn’t look as good in the layup line as it does on the court. The Panthers play rugged defense. And they’re great shooters from the free-throw line, the baseline, the three-point line … you name a line, they can hit from it.

The Panthers prefer to play the game at a deliberate pace. They move the ball so well offensively that it makes them difficult to trap in the half court. In a first-round game against UNLV — a team that routinely applies full-court pressure — the Panthers didn’t handle that pressure so well and were rattled into 16 turnovers.

Against Kansas, the Panthers turned it over nine times, four coming in the final three minutes against KU’s full-court pressure, which started midway through the second half, right about the time Kansas started to come back from a double-digit deficit.

We’ll never know if Kansas coming out of a break in the action with full-court pressure midway through the first half would have turned the momentum and prevented UNI from taking a 36-28 lead at the half.

As effective as the press was in helping his team climb back into it, did Self think about using it in the first half?

“Sure, that was part of our strategy, but when they’re in the bonus at 12 minutes and they’re the best free-throw-shooting team in the country and we’ve got zero team fouls, I don’t think that was the percentage play,” Self said.

By “in the bonus,” Self meant that the next KU foul would have put UNI at the free-throw line. KU committed its sixth foul of the half at the 11:46 mark, the seventh at the three-minute mark. (Northern Iowa’s first three fouls came in a 15-second span that ended at the 9:58 mark of the first half).

“The thing about pressing is, we would like to create havoc, but that’s not who we are,” Self said. “You don’t win 33 games and say, ‘OK, today we’re going to change who we are in winning games.’ And I’m not being defensive because I would have loved to do that when they’re (one foul away from being) in the bonus with 12 left and they don’t miss free throws.

“Our thinking was, let’s continue to grind it and guard them. Let’s get this thing to three or four at halftime, and then we’ll regroup. Well, we didn’t do it.”

Coaches who say, “I’m not being defensive,” usually say that when fully in defensive mode. That wasn’t the case here. Self merely explained his reasoning. By the book, it made sense. But in a game that was so going UNI’s way, it seemed like the time to forget the percentages, try to rattle the foe and in so doing give the pro-KU crowd in the Ford Center reason to get into the game in a loud way. Plus, it might have broken the tension for Kansas players competing with the burden of being everyone’s pick to win it all.

Pressing in the middle of a game carries more risk than at the end because teams attack it looking to score, instead of trying merely to maintain possession. Even so, Kansas needed to do something to make UNI uncomfortable, something to keep the game from going according to the underdog’s plans.

That wouldn’t have changed some things about it simply being UNI’s night — 7-foot, 280-pound center Jordan Eglseder came into the game 1-of-9 from three-point range and made two of three in the first half; starting KU guards Sherron Collins and Tyshawn Taylor missed all 11 three-point attempts — but it might have shifted the flow, knocked the Panthers off-kilter.

Self is the smartest coach in college basketball, and when athletic director Lew Perkins says he wouldn’t trade him for anyone, he means it. Similarly, former Los Dodgers leader Tommy Lasorda was the greatest manager in the history of baseball. He managed nine players to Rookie of the Year honors, proving he can teach the game and purge insecurities of his players, two traits Self also has in his arsenal.

Going against the percentages, Lasorda let Tom Niedenfuer pitch to Jack Clark with first base open and two outs in the ninth inning of Game 6 of the 1985 National League Championship Series, and it backfired. I’ll go to my grave believing Self applying full-court pressure earlier in a game in which his team was the second-best on the floor that night would have given the Jayhawks a better shot at advancing to the Sweet 16.