Monday, March 31, 2008
Get your March Madness fix at KUSports.com.
Detroit 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.