St. Louis — Not a single McDonald’s all-American on the roster, a first for Kansas University basketball coach Bill Self since he left Tulsa. Just one returning starter on a team that lost two lottery picks and another NBA draft choice. The two top recruits declared academically ineligible for the season.
The only chance this team had of getting to the Final Four was to bum a ride to St. Louis and from there catch a boat down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.
That’s what most of us thought back when football season overlapped with basketball. That’s not what the players who banded together Sunday in the Edward Jones Dome to defeat North Carolina, 80-67, earning an all-expenses-paid trip to New Orleans, ever believed.
“The beginning,” Travis Releford said when asked when he first thought this could be a Final Four team. “Coach probably didn’t agree with it, but we all came together outside of the gym and just were talking and told ourselves that we’re coming together this year. And listen to coach and listen to the things he wants us to do and play the way he wants us to play, then we can get there. And we buckled down and we just listened.”
Not all the time, but far more often than most college-age young men listen to authority figures.
“I don’t know if overachieved is ever a true expression because it means you had it in you the whole time,” Self said. “I’d say that this team’s probably played as close to a ceiling as any team that I’ve had.”
Self started the year with modest goals and they grew when his team did.
“I felt like we had to beat Ohio State back in December to put us in a position to have a quality win to get in the NCAA Tournament,” Self said. “That was my mindset. We have gotten so much better. We’re like 8-3, lose to Davidson, and you know, no chemistry whatsoever. I mean, just bad.”
No coach as demanding as Self could attain as much success as he is if he cared what players said about him behind his back. How was he supposed to know that what they were saying behind his back was to listen to him and to do what he says. That could be why he never saw this coming. He underestimated how unified they were determined to be, how trusting of their coach.
“The guys kind of woke up once conference play started,” Self said of a 16-2 regular-season championship. “But this team has played as close to a ceiling as it possibly could. I don’t think you can give 110 percent. I think all you can give is a hundred. And then I think this team has given as close to a hundred as any team that I’ve probably coached.”
Successful teams are a reflection of their coach. Self is a confident, intense, thick-skinned, combative, relentless competitor. His players were the same in outlasting an injury-torn-but-still potent North Carolina team.
The Tar Heels (32-6) were the leading rebounding team in the nation, and Kansas (31-6) beat them on the boards, 41-35. Carolina’s two top ball handlers, injured McDonald’s All-Americans Kendall Marshall and Dexter Strickland, didn’t play, but five other McDonald’s All-Americans did.
The Heels outscored KU’s bench, 23-4, but Kevin Young by himself outrebounded the UNC bench, 8-7.
All five Kansas starters scored in double figures and all made big plays in the decisive moments, when North Carolina made one of its final 14 shots and missed its last seven.
Withey knew he had to establish himself as a game-changing force and he did with two huge blocks at the end. Nobody played better in St. Louis than Withey. Releford knew he had to be a defensive pest, and he was with two steals and multiple deflections. Elijah Johnson knew he was the most equipped to hit the big shot, and he did, nailing a three that ended a scoring drought that lasted longer than five minutes. Tyshawn Taylor knew he had to figure out a way to turn being the fastest player on the court into buckets and he did, running out ahead of the defense in transition. Robinson carried the team to a 47-47 stalemate with 14 first-half points.
“These guys, nothing fazes them,” Self said. “No matter what the situation is, they just think that they’re going to figure it out. And certainly they figured it out tonight.”
What they seem to have figured out a long time ago is that combined will means more than individual skill.
“I don’t know if I ever enjoyed coaching a team more than this one,” Self said. “I love them. We fight. It’s combative sometimes. All those things. But I love coaching these guys. They have done so much as far as their work habits and representing our school in a way that has given us a chance.”
The combination of ladders and scissors on nylon always puts a coach in a good mood, but this time it had a little extra meaning to the coach who doesn’t need a ladder to stand eye-to-eye with college basketball coaching giants, past and present.
“It is just remarkable to me to see them cutting down the nets out here,” Self said. “Because this would not be the year that anybody would have thought we would do it. It’s a pretty cool feeling.”