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2008 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament

Monday, March 31, 2008

Keegan

Keegan: Kaun inspires hunted

Kansas center Sasha Kaun gets his share of the net during the celebration Sunday, March 30, 2008 at Ford Field in Detroit.  Over the weekend Kaun signed with CSKA Moscow and will begin his professional basketball career in Russia.

Kansas center Sasha Kaun gets his share of the net during the celebration Sunday, March 30, 2008 at Ford Field in Detroit. Over the weekend Kaun signed with CSKA Moscow and will begin his professional basketball career in Russia.

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2008 NCAA Tournament

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— The road to the Final Four took a detour to Tomsk, Russia, where a boy left home at the age of 16 to pursue a basketball dream.

Sasha Kaun, undeterred by the weight of expectations, the pressures of being the hunted, the enormity of it all, played the game of his life Sunday evening inside Ford Field, where 57,563 were treated to a David vs. Goliath game that went down to the final sling-shot, wide left.

By the time an extremely well-guarded three-pointer from Davidson's Jason Richards hit the backboard, Kaun was watching, his penchant for missing free throws making him too big a risk to be on the floor. Yet, without 20 minutes of sheer aggression from the 6-foot-11 reserve center, Kansas would not be going to the Final Four to take on the school's former coach, Roy Williams, and the North Carolina Tar Heels.

"Probably the longest shot I've seen in my life, just being in the air for so long," Kaun said, his Russian eyes smiling so brightly. "Just relieved when I saw it hit the backboard. Just happy after that."

A glance at a scoreboard that showed Kansas 59, Davidson 57, was needed just to make sure it was over. That's how hard it was to kill a giant-killer that brought a 25-game winning streak into the game.

"I just wanted to make sure that I hurried up and shook hands, and the officials left the court so they couldn't put any more time back on the clock," KU coach Bill Self said.

Relief spread throughout the Kansas bench and in the stands. Self was on both knees, praying his only means of control in the final seconds, and dropped forward when the shot missed.

For much of the game, it was easy to tell the hunters, tiny Davidson College, from the hunted, No. 1 Kansas, even in the stands, where the backers of Wildcats wore red, supporters of Kansas blue. The red spectators stood throughout, bringing such festive energy to the event. The band played the team's theme song - Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" - and the fans sang along. They were having a blast, so happy to be there in new late-March territory, so loose. The blue section appeared more tense, begging for a shot that would give them relief, free them from the tension of it all, and when the shots they so badly wanted rolled off the rim, they groaned, flashbacks of past near misses haunting them.

The hunters played with nothing to lose, trapping the ball in the post with such vigor, never hesitating to take a shot. The hunted played with a tightness that early in the game resulted in players missing shots they normally make and then late in the game passing up shots they normally take.

"This game has a different feel to it than a lot of other games," said KU coach Bill Self, who improved to 1-4 in Elite Eight games. "I thought we were loose. I thought everything was great. But I even talked to our guys in there afterward. It just has a different feel because everybody knows the stakes are so high. Playing Davidson, you know, even though it's not the same 'Wow!' factor with the name of their school, not being from a BCS conference or whatever, I think in some ways maybe puts a little subtle pressure on you. Our guys didn't handle it great, but we were tough enough to get the win, which is all that matters."

And through it all, there was Kaun, the least offensively gifted of the nine players who appeared in the game for Kansas, clapping his hands to demand the ball, tossing bodies aside to get into position for rebounds, challenging so many shots and blocking one, not looking anything but energized by the heat of the moment.

Kansas played a terrific defensive game, most notably on the final possession, and made superstar Stephen Curry work so hard for his 25 shots. Still, KU needed all Kaun's field goals to fall for that effort not to go down as a footnote swallowed by tales of failure. Kaun contributed 13 points and six rebounds and shot 6-of-6 from the field, 1-of-3 from the line.

His offensive output came in handy because Davidson reserve Bryant Barr evoked bad memories of Texas Tech's Darryl Dora and Marchello Vealy of Oral Roberts, lesser-known players for whom the basket grew so large in victories against Kansas.

In the second half, Barr scored 11 points and made all four of his shots, three from beyond the arc. He entered averaging 5.1 points. That's the stuff of which upsets are made. It didn't happen, which left Davidson's players and coaches wearing the boxing gloves, punching their mirrors, the way it always happens when such a big victory falls just short. Tough business.

"Every player and I will beat ourselves up about what we did or didn't do because every play counts," Davidson coach Bob McKillop said. "We believe that. That's the way we coach. That's the way we play. I made the mistake (on the final play) of not realizing to tell our guys to set the ball screen with the big rather than with Chalmers guarding. That did not come out in the huddle. That's the mistake I made. Yet, if Jason Richards makes that shot, we're geniuses and we're in the Final Four."

Instead, Self and the Jayhawks are in the Final Four, and the easy-angle hunters must find a new man to brand "best coach never to make it to the Final Four," a left-handed compliment Self was happy to shed. His team no longer has to play with the burden of being the hunted. For the first time, all four No. 1 seeds advanced to the Final Four. North Carolina is ranked the highest No. 1 seed, Kansas the lowest.

The last time Kansas entered a game with this strong an underdog label, not that it's a huge one, came Nov. 25, 2006, in Las Vegas, against defending national champion Florida. Julian Wright and Darrell Arthur took it to the Gators, 82-80.

"I think we should have a great week of practice and preparation," Self said. "The hard part is just beginning, but in our guys' minds there's been a weight that has been lifted, which should free us up a little bit."

They survived as the hunted and are eager to thrive as the hunters.

Comments

Robert Brock 14 years, 3 months ago

Uh, Keegan, we were underdogs but the game in Las Vegas didn't matter. Nobody would have noticed if UF had flattened us by 30. This game Saturday is Prime Time, USDA Top-Graded Stuff in the Final Four. This one matters.

fansincewilt 14 years, 3 months ago

Kaun has been a beast in the tournament. Yesterday, he showed what he is made of. I noticed Self had him in the game in the first couple of minutes. Right now, he is playing the biggest of the big guys. He is going to have to bring that same mentality Saturday night. If we shut down NC, we are going to have to handle TH just like we did Curry. Maybe Kaun is the best guy we have to shut him down. Go Hawks. Kansas will be the best defensive team in the Final Fourn.

mcoan 14 years, 3 months ago

Yes, Sasha is the answer. Well, Sasha, you've got your work cut out for you now: Tyler Hansborough, then Kevin Love. Hopefully, Coach will see the need to put TWO big guys on them. And dust off and practice the zone and pack it in tight this week. Maybe even try a big front line: Kaun, Aldrich, and either Jackson or Foulie, with a point guard and I'm-Mr.NBA-but-I-can't-reliably-carry-my-team-when-they-need-me.

But probably not: Self prefers to just do the same thing over and over again. It's as if he learned nothing from Larry Brown about changing strategies. How about inviting Larry in as an assistant next weekend? Ring....

Ed Fox 14 years, 3 months ago

mcoan - you sound like an idiot with all of this complaining the day after the coach you hate so much got this team to a FF. There are about 320 Div. I college basketball teams - why don't you choose one that you can get behind reliably and not constantly complain about? There have to be coaches out there who meet your exacting standards and can live up to the very high expectations you set for them. Obviously this isn't one of those teams or coaches, so find a new one. Otherwise, this team is going to the Final Four, so enjoy it and quite complaining. And your suggestion is to rely on Aldrich as a key component for stopping Hansborough? Really? Nothing against Cole, he'll be great some day, I just have trouble imagining that day being Saturday.

Tuskin 14 years, 3 months ago

I'm happy that Coach threw so many different looks at Davidson. It made it harder for them - they had to concentrate on more things, rather than just execute the same old game plan.

We played man-to-man and at least two kinds of zones. We also played big, and we played really, really small - even a four guard offense for a bit.

Good job changing strategies, Coach! Now, what have you got for Saturday?

BCRavenJHawkfan 14 years, 3 months ago

Is that stat on his free throws in this game right? I could have swore I watched him make both on a shooting foul around the 4 or 5 minute mark of the second half. I even think that somebody posted a "WOW, Kaun made both free throws".

Michael Auchard 14 years, 3 months ago

I say we give Keegan a break today -- no mocking him for... well, all of the things we mock him for. Today we celebrate. Hell, let's have a one week moratorium on trying to make him a better writer. We have better things to do this week, guys. This is the big one. We need good karma.

Rock Chalk Jayhawk KU

GrayHawker 14 years, 3 months ago

The refs letting the inside play get very physical has clearly played into Kaun's hands to have a good tourney. Hope the same goes next weekend.

hawk_bred20 14 years, 3 months ago

How about the refs trying to give them the game? They had about three out of bounds calls that were total BS. There guys swung at the ball and made it go out of bounds yet they called it on us. There were also quite a few phantom foul calls.

lance1jhawk 14 years, 3 months ago

Tom- Um pretty sure Sasha Kaun didn't leave Russia to pursue a basketball dream. I've read alot about how he didn't start playing until he got to Florida. The way you wrote the story though really makes it pop.

DrPepper 14 years, 3 months ago

I concur. Saying that Kaun left Russia to play basketball is a complete lie. Willful too, I would have to assume since it is common knowledge for anyone following KU daily. Sad.

actorman 14 years, 3 months ago

I'm not surprised that TK would fabricate the reason that Kaun left Russia, since neither he nor anyone at the LJW has EVER reported the true story of how Joe Mortensen got to KU despite my repeated requests--but I digress."Good job changing strategies, Coach!"Tuskin, you couldn't possibly be right. According to mcoan, Self does the same thing over and over, so how could he have done a good job changing strategies?

Godisajayhawk 14 years, 3 months ago

Lance and Dr. Pepper...thank you. I was going to post nearly the exact same thing until I read yours...I'm glad somebody (s) is/are paying attentionStill a good story about Sasha shocka Kaun

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