Monday night, for the fifth time in my life, my alma mater will play for the National Championship in men’s basketball.
And now 2012.
If this year, in which I’ve pulled back my obsession for the Jayhawks in order to find a better, healthier way of following them, has meant anything it’s appreciating that fact more than the brutal losses of Marches past.
Is this team better than last year’s, or 2010’s? Probably not. But they’re still playing in the final game of the year where those two teams fell to the randomness of the tournament much earlier. Where those past teams crumbled when faced with the double-barreled pressure of a deficit against a hungry team and the threat of the season ending with a loss, this year’s team isn’t concerned when down by double-digits. They dig in, get their shit together, shut the other team down on defense, and hit just enough shots on offense to win. If defense wins championships, this team is doing its damnedest to prove that.
Last Monday, as we drove back from Kansas City, we hit St. Louis just as the local sports columnist’s radio show was beginning. He spent much of his opening monologue ranting about the many “experts” who were overstating the meaning of Sunday’s regional final between KU and North Carolina. One bad game doesn’t make Roy Williams a bad coach, he said. And while Bill Self is clearly a fine coach, let’s not go overboard with the praise for him, as he does have some NBA talent on his roster.
There’s a part of me that agreed with his second statement. KU is talented. Thomas Robinson is a first team All-American. Tyshawn Taylor made the third team. Jeff Withey has evolved into a game-altering defensive player. Elijah Johnson makes huge plays when it matters. Travis Releford would be a star on a lot of teams. And Kevin Young has developed into a contributing force off the bench.
But when you look at this five-game run, you have to say Bill Self has done an amazing job with the team. They can’t hit an outside shot. Their offense gets bogged down for extended stretches. They make awful mistakes in key situations. But in every game, he’s pushed the right buttons, said the right things in the huddle, and somehow got his team to the championship game. Something more talented teams in 2007, 2010, and 2011 could not do.
Realistically, the run will end Monday night. Kentucky is bigger, faster, deeper, and just better. When the teams played in November, in their second game of the season, KU somehow hung around in the first half and went to the locker room tied. Then Kentucky exploded in the second half, making the Jayhawks look silly for the first 10 minutes. KU couldn’t make passes, find shots, or score. They hit some free throws late to make the score respectable, but there was a clear difference between the teams that night. Kentucky was the young, ultra-talented team that was looking to forge an identity. Kansas was the proud program coming off a five-year run of excellence built around a single star and a bunch of parts that didn’t look that good.
Five months later, against long odds, KU will get another crack at the Wildcats. Logic says it won’t be a close game. I’m going to do my best to enjoy the next 36 hours, savoring the feeling of being one of two teams with a chance to cut the last set of nets down for the season, and appreciating all that this team has accomplished. You never know. The Jayhawks just might have one more shocker in them.
Rock Chalk, bitches.