Is there any way we can just have Kansas and Texas play every week? We would be guaranteed something great every time, based on what we’ve been treated to over the past eight days.
What a game in OKC on Sunday. Unlike the previous game, which determined the regular season champion and the top three seeds for the conference tournament, this one really was for little more than pride. If that’s what it was for, every player on the court played for every ounce of their pride rather than coast until the games really matter next week.
Just like last week, Kevin Durant fueled a furious Texas start, with his 22 first half points getting the Horns up by as many as 22. However, he had less help this time than he did in Lawrence, and following a 24-7 run to close the half, KU trailed by only five. The next 25 minutes were instant classic quality basketball. Texas lead by as many as nine. KU came back. Then Texas extended again. Then KU got close one more time. Finally, KU took the lead and even extended out to a five point lead twice. Texas lead by four in the final minute. But, for once, KU hit their free throws, got a huge three from Mario Chalmers to tie the game, and survived one last shot from Durant (who was clearly spent for most of the second half) to go to overtime.
In overtime, KU willed themselves to the win. They hit the shots, the free throws, made the defensive plays, and basically did everything they had to do to win. The signature play came when DJ Augustin lined up a three that would have tied the game and Brandon Rush came from nowhere to block it. It was like Hakim Warrick swatting away Michael Lee’s late three in New Orleans four years ago. The clock ran out, the nets came down, and there were “tears in his eyes, I guess…”
Fantastic game by two great teams and a ton of great players. Every KU player contributed to the win. Sasha Kaun didn’t do much, but he worked his ass off on several key plays to keep the ball alive. Darnell Jackson was almost trying too hard, throwing the ball away a couple times and getting called for a couple needless fouls, but he also had a few huge plays. Sherron Collins shook off his late-season funk to lead the team in scoring and keyed their second half drive. Brandon Rush was huge in slowing Kevin Durant down. Durant was a different player with Rush chasing him around.
Most importantly, KU played a significant portion of the second half without Julian Wright, who sat with his fourth foul. Mario Chalmers fouled out in overtime. Yet, KU won. It was a complete team victory and perhaps the final lesson this team needed to learn in order to make a deep run in the NCAAs.
After keeping my expectations down most of the season, I now see a team poised to do something great. Some of my sarcastic readers might label greatness as just getting out of the first round. Well, that would be a nice start. But this team is too good not to be playing on the last day of the regional, at worst. They have size, they can shoot, the play hellacious D, they rebound, and they have not just depth but good depth. There are some fine teams in their regional, but if KU plays well, they should beat every one of them. If they get nervous, or play sloppy, or read their clippings too much, there are plenty of teams that can send them home early. But they should have learned that lesson last year. The odds of the tournament are against them. The odds of their performance are against them – they’ve won 11 straight games and winning 17, or even 15 straight, is extremely tough this time of year. (Along those lines, don’t expect Memphis to go deep. They’ve won 22 straight.) But, I like this team and I think they’ve got something special left in them.
Kevin Durant. What else is there to say? If he knew how to pace himself a little bit, KU might not have pulled this one out. It’s almost a shame he’s going pro, because there’s no way he’ll look this good in the NBA right away. He’s a joy to watch, even when he’s dropping 37 on your team.
I should have kept track of all the silly things I heard from announcers this weekend. A few did stand out. Ron Franklin, as he has done in recent years, struggled calling the Big 12 tournament. Most egregious was his insistence on calling Julian Wright “Julius.” Now, Julian definitely has some 1970s in his game, but lacking the Afro, I’m not sure how he could be confused with the good Doctor. An especially bad miscall came the first time KU cut the Texas lead to two. Franklin called out, as the mostly KU crowd roared, “KU can tie it or take the lead on this possession.” As he said that, Texas walked the ball up the court right in front of him. I guess he was too busy to actually watch the game. Throw in some of his typical miscalls of fouls, two pointers he thought were three, and completely missing whistles, well, it was as if Fred White or Jay Randolph was doing the game.
My biggest peeve of the weekend were all these talking heads who kept insisting that the NCAA tournament was about getting the best 65 teams in the field. No, it’s not, and never has been. It’s about the committee determining who the best 35 teams are who remain after the 31 automatic bids are doled out. It’s like that every year, yet every year Dick Vitale appears on ESPN’s selection show, screaming about how this school or that school got screwed because they weren’t allowed in when they were clearly one of the best 65 teams in the country.
Another good Vitale line came after he pronounced the West region as the most difficult, and Jay Bilas politely disagreed with him. On his next camera shot, Vitale screamed that there were a lot of teams with “tremendous history and tradition” in the West, and that would make them play better. Huh? As a KU fan, I can confirm that having a fabulous traditional and history does not win you games in March. Ask Bucknell and Bradley. Just because Kentucky is one of the greatest programs in the history of the game does not mean this year’s mediocre squad is suddenly going to turn into world beaters. In fact, I think Villanova is going to run them out of the gym and the ‘Nova ‘Cats will be KU’s biggest test in the West. Vitale’s a clown.
Kudos to Bob Huggins, and Lord knows I’m loathe to give him credit for anything, for a couple of his calls over the weekend. First, he left his blackjack dealer vest at home this weekend. Good choice. Then, after K-State didn’t get into the NCAAs, he said, “We should have won more games.” No complaining, no histrionics. Just telling the truth. Well done. Now go have a cocktail. Although, before Sunday, he did lobby saying teams were always told to play the best competition and then noted KSU had three losses to KU this season. True, but that doesn’t balance their truly awful non-conference schedule, that even with a couple decent games scattered in, was one of the worst in all of Division I. Probably not totally his fault, since some of the schedule was set before he arrived. But still, you can’t complain too much when you loaded up on such crappy opponents early in the year.
A couple quick oddities from the brackets. Ohio State is the #1 seed in the South and are potentially rewarded with a match-up against Texas A&M in San Antonio to get to Atlanta? And UCLA is a #2 seed, but never have to leave California? Hopefully UCLA will pull a KU and choke away that home-state court advantage. As I said, oddities rather than outrages.
Enough. A couple days of hoops detox, in which I’ll try to remain calm when my alma mater is slighted by one talking head or another and concentrate on spring training news. I guess I actually have to pay attention to the play-in game this year, so that’s some work on Tuesday. I’ve got brackets to fill. And Thursday, the real work begins. Good thing this is my spring break week. It’s going to be a busy one.