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Saturday, March 12, 2016

Keegan

Tom Keegan: Tough group of Jayhawks keep on conquering

Kansas forward Perry Ellis hoists the net as the Jayhawks celebrate following their 81-71 win over West Virginia, Saturday, March 12, 2016 at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.

Kansas forward Perry Ellis hoists the net as the Jayhawks celebrate following their 81-71 win over West Virginia, Saturday, March 12, 2016 at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.

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— First, the Kansas University basketball team conquered the world in South Korea. Next came the island of Maui. The grueling Big 12 regular season, a marathon in which the Jayhawks fell behind for a blink, proved a particularly gratifying championship.

Saturday, Kansas claimed the Big 12 Tournament title in Sprint Center, with an 81-71 victory against relentlessly physical West Virginia.

Four championships down, by far the biggest to go. So far, whatever it has taken, Kansas has known how to deliver in the clutch. When a team has rotating stars as does this one, that generally indicates nobody cares who deserves the credit and that’s the way Kansas has played to win its four titles.

Wayne Selden Jr. earned World University Games MVP honors in July, and Frank Mason III stood out, as well. Selden and Mason shared the honors in the Maui Invitational in November. Perry Ellis was the lone Jayhawk to earn All-Big 12 first-team recognition for his exceptional regular season. So naturally, it was Devonté Grahams’ turn to take home the hardware in Kansas City, Mo., where he was named Most Outstanding Player of the Big 12 tourney after a 27-point five-rebound, four-steal effort against the Mountaineers. Ellis also made the all-tournament team. 

All four players had strong Big 12 tournaments, as did emerging freshman Carlton Bragg Jr., who racks up points almost as swiftly as he does personal fouls.

It was an impressive three-day run to the title for a Kansas team that struggled to score points in the first 20 minutes of its semifinal (vs. Baylor) and final games. They found a way to reverse that. They almost always have on the way to a 30-4 record.

Nothing about the confidence Kansas carries onto the court these days appears fragile. Taking a 14-game winning streak into the NCAA tournament can do that for a team.

“We’re very confident,” said Mason, who played with a sore left foot that made him a possible scratch until he determined after warmups he would give it a shot. He played 38 minutes. “I think everyone has a lot of confidence right now. Everyone’s having fun: coaches, fans, everyone. And I think we’re going to need that heading into this next tournament.”

Podcast episode

Press Conferences & Post-Game Interviews

Self, Graham and Selden discuss KU's Big 12 postseason title

Kansas basketball coach Bill Self, and Jayhawks Devonté Graham and Wayne Selden Jr., answer questions from the media following KU's Big 12 title game victory over West Virginia.

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That would be the NCAA Tournament. Kansas undoubtedly will enter it as No. 1 overall seed and likely will play the first two rounds in Des Moines, Iowa, although nothing is certain until brackets are released Sunday.

The team’s balance, demonstrated by four different players having a share of the marquee, based on honors given out after the four titles, calls to mind the 2008 national-title team. Who was that squad’s best player? Brandon Rush, a three-time All-Big 12 first-team selection and the team’s leading scorer in each of his three seasons at Kansas? Mario Chalmers, perennial All-Big 12 defensive honoree, the second-leading scorer three years in a row and the author of The Shot that remains in mid-flight on sports-bar walls, countless basements, even some living rooms? Darrell Arthur, who dropped 20 and 10 on Memphis in the title game? Sherron Collins, that ball of fire of a sixth man? Tough question, much tougher than identifying that team’s glue guys (Russell Robinson, Darnell Jackson, Sasha Kaun).

This team isn’t as deep or talented as that one, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be to win the national title. It’s facing this year’s field, not the 2008 champions.

Comparisons to more recent Kansas teams also have no relevance. Any fears that these Jayhawks won’t reach the Sweet 16 because the past two didn't, have no basis in reality. The condition of center Joel Embiid’s back (stress fracture) put everyone in a bad mood two years ago, when confidence wobbled and the team’s best remaining player, Andrew Wiggins, turned back into the freshman he seldom resembled in a loss to Stanford.  

Last season, freshman center Cliff Alexander’s family ran afoul of NCAA law and it resulted in his suspension. Don't you hate it when parents misbehave and get their children in trouble?

No such uncertainties hang over the Jayhawks this March and they compete with a much more experienced roster.

“Distractions are a major key,” Mason said. “They can hurt teams. That’s the main thing we preach about in meetings. We don’t want any distractions. We want to keep doing what we’re doing. Everyone’s focused on the big picture and that’s winning.”

Mason suffered his foot injury late in Friday night’s victory against Baylor. He limped off the floor but stayed in the game. He said he doesn’t expect the foot to become a distraction.

“I got an X-ray on my foot,” Mason said. “It wasn’t feeling well. I thought I wasn’t going to play (Saturday). I took some meds for it, got some treatment on it. The X-ray didn’t look bad. It’s the top of my foot. I think it’s a bruise. I gave it a chance in warmups and it felt decent.”

He also fell hard on his right hip a couple of times.

“At one point of the game it was hurting so bad I wanted to tell coach to take me out, but the moment was too great so I toughed it out,” Mason said.

Toughing it out has driven this team to titles from as far away as South Korea and Hawaii and as close to home as Allen Fieldhouse and Kansas City. Potential trips to Des Moines, probably Chicago or Louisville and then Houston are on the horizon. Nobody knows if they’ll win the fifth title, easily the toughest one. At the same time, nobody has reason to doubt they’ll give it everything they have in pursuit of that goal. 

— Sports editor Tom Keegan appears on The Drive on WIBW-TV on Sunday nights.

— See what people were saying about the Big 12 title game during KUsports.com’s live coverage


More news and notes from KU’s Big 12 postseason crown





By the Numbers: Kansas 81, West Virginia 71

By the Numbers: Kansas 81, West Virginia 71

Comments

Bryce Landon 2 years, 3 months ago

Few KU fans have questioned the Jayhawks' toughness, or Bill Self's coaching acumen, as loudly as I have. And it is high time I admit that I have vastly underestimated both. These Jayhawks have gone from mental marshmallows in mid-to-late January to tough-as-nails when it matters most. Bill Self, whose firing I have loudly called for after 19 losses the previous two years and back-to-back Round of 32 exits, has shown me that, so far from no longer being the coach he used to be, is as good as ever. So all of you fellow KU fans who want to force-feed me crow, my mouth is wide open.

BILL SELF FOREVER

Danny Hernandez 2 years, 3 months ago

The flip side of you being wrong is that you get to savor in Coach Self's victories as a fan, so even being wrong, you're right

Bryce Landon 2 years, 3 months ago

I have no problem being wrong. I'd much rather see KU win than see anybody get fired.

Dirk Medema 2 years, 3 months ago

Maybe you won't jump quite as quickly next time?

The view is never as terrifying when you step back from the ledge.

Shannon Gustafson 2 years, 3 months ago

It's not easy to admit being wrong, particularly when you're so adamant about your feelings on the subject. I applaud you for posting this.

Steve Corder 2 years, 3 months ago

Having never seen WV's Huggins before last night's game, my wife's first remark was, "Is he wearing pajamas?" I said no, but he dresses like a bar owner of a downtown strip club... and his teams play that way.

Sweet, sweet victory!

Steve Zimmerman 2 years, 3 months ago

LOL.. but did you notice he gave Perry a hug? That's professionalism & respect. I give him credit for coaching a bunch of non-top 50 recruits to go this far with the pressure defense. He's just as deserving as Tubby Smith for the B12 COY trophy.

Al Martin 2 years, 3 months ago

I agree. But did you see the pre-game interview with Holly, Huggins, and Bill? Huggins looked like a scolded puppy the entire time. At the end, Holly talked about how fun it was interviewing them together, and Bill said, "I don't think Bob had any fun at all."

Suzi Marshall 2 years, 3 months ago

Great article Tom!

Let's not forget to win these things the team had to show exceptional toughness in the WUG Championship game vs Germany to win in OT. Then the great win vs OU in THREE OTs! Then being down in the Big 12 by two games, with only a very slim perdictive percentage to win the 12th Straight.

One of the ESPN announcers got it right on TV when he said this team is tougher than a $2 steak. First Des Moines, then Chicago/Louisville, and on to HOUSTON.

Steve Zimmerman 2 years, 3 months ago

Yeah really.. Congrats to the team both Staffing Coach & Players for achieving one milestone at a time. We're an inch away from reaching another yearly goal which might be another uphill task, but possible with this group of dedicated youngsters. It's great to see the transforming of play style, choice of bigs, adjustment against any opponents, greenlights to fire 3s. It's been great to watch this team clipping opponents game after game. For a moment, I thought they were not fun to watch anymore but this is not the first time I'm wrong!! I need to be a more faithful fan! Let's go Jayhawks!!!

Steve Macy 2 years, 3 months ago

It was said that KU has "mid-major guards", or was it just Devonte was mid-major? Anyway, maybe they are right, but hold on to your criticism of my comment, I'll explain. KU's guards were under recruited, mid-major like. They are scrappy, mid-major like. They can shoot, mid-major guards shooting has cost KU in the past, our "mid-major guards" this year might shoot us into the next game, and the next one, and……you get the idea. Been a fun ride so far, buckle up, it going to be wilder in the coming weeks.

Harlan Hobbs 2 years, 3 months ago

No question that Devonte and Frank turned out to be diamonds in the rough. It just goes to show that perseverance, toughness, leadership, and heart are often just as important, if not more so , than actual skills, and I would say that their skills are pretty darn good as well.

Good thoughts, Bryce. Nobody can question your passion for the Jayhawks.

Janet Olin 2 years, 3 months ago

Amazing game by DG, amazing toughness by FM. Love it that DG is becoming the face of the team with his bounce (and Bragg with his mile-wide grin), showing the stoic stalwarts Ellis, Mason, Selden that it's ok to savor and live in the moment, have a little fun along the way. I also credit Self for lightening up a little and letting the kids have some fun, adjusting his form/format somewhat to meet circumstances. It's working. Selden needs to find his shot as well as play defense, Svi needs some minutes, and Lucas is doing his best to rebound/free throw. Team is on an up-tick.

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