One of the many differences between being a fan and being a player is that, as a fan, we can give up. We can suspend hope in the face of compelling evidence. We can look at the clock and the score, sigh and say, “It just wasn’t our night.” Or look at the conference standings and the up-coming schedule and think, “This isn’t our year.”

But players don’t have that freedom. They have to play, regardless of the score or their place in the standings or their projected seed in a tournament that is still a month away.

Which is a good thing all around. It helps us fans keep our sanity. And it means even when we do step back, there still is a chance the outcome will change.

I stayed up late last night, and was up early this morning, considering Monday’s insane, amazing, ridiculous KU-Iowa State game, and kept thinking about that split. Of all the things that the Kansas Jayhawks have done well in Bill Self’s tenure, it’s not give up. The most obvious example, of course, was when they were down nine with 2:00 to play in San Antonio in 2008. Seven game minutes later they were National Champions. But it was demonstrated even better last night.
Down seven early, with Iowa State drilling threes from all around the arc, KU settled down and five minutes later were up by four.
Down seven with 5:00 remaining, KU kept playing.
Down five with 40 seconds to play, they kept playing.
Down four with 20 seconds to play, they kept playing.
Down two with 11 seconds to play, they kept playing.

The mythical Chop play worked on two-straight possessions. Iowa State missed enough free throws to open the door, while KU knocked theirs down. An explosion by a much-maligned senior guard turned the end of overtime into a rout. But the story of this game was not the fortunate call(s) KU got late, or the ridiculous number of threes Iowa State hit for the first 39.5 minutes, KU’s role players stepping up, or even Elijah Johnson’s <em>On Fire</em> performance over the last six minutes. It was that the Jayhawks never stopped playing.
What’s funny is that those first 3-4 years of Self’s tenure, when the players recruited by Roy Williams were struggling to grasp Self’s different offensive ideas and Self’s own recruits were adjusting to the college game, KU often looked awful late in games. They’d run the wrong plays out of last-minute time outs, or forget to guard the one guy they couldn’t let get open. But once the roster turned over and Self’s guys matured, things changed in crunch time. The expectation was that they would make a play, someone would hit a shot, or the breaks would go their way. It doesn’t always happen. But it sure seems like KU is generally the team refusing to crack under pressure while their opponents wither and fade.

There is always the question of whether that is coaching or just having talented players. Clearly it’s a combination. Self has had terrific talent to work with. There’s no getting around having guys that will play professionally when they leave KU makes his job easier. But those players still have to make plays. Sherron has to get the ball to Mario, who has to hit the shot. Jeff Withey has to set the screen, which Ben McLemore has to use correctly and then hit the shot. Naadir Tharpe has to read the screen correctly and swing the ball at the right moment when Elijah Johnson pops open.

But coaching that helps make those plays. There’s the knowledge that it’s worked before. There’s the understanding that the guy calling the plays has won at an 80% clip most of his career. There’s the trust between the five guys on the court, developed through endless repetition in practice, that all of them are capable of making, and one of them will make, the winning play. It’s a remarkable thing to watch and yet another reason that I thank the basketball gods that I was born into a (mostly) KU-loving family and that when Roy decided to go home, Bill Self was willing and ready to come to Lawrence.

Three weeks ago I think most KU fans had suspended hope that another Big 12 title would happen. It wasn’t losing to a very good Oklahoma State team at home, or a solid Oklahoma team on the road that did it. It was that brutal TCU loss. That game seemed to shatter the fear everyone had of KU and the expectation that KU would always find a way to win. Even if KU righted their ship, that loss would be the difference between them and OSU or K-State or whoever was also in the running for the conference title at the end of the season. And it still may be. But over the last week KU has found a way to win an old-school, offense-optional slugfest in two overtimes in Stillwater and a 1980s throwback, run-and-gun game last night in Ames. Win out and, at worst, it will be another co-title.

For a team that isn’t nearly as talented or deep as last year’s team, or the one of the year before, or the year before, or…well you get it…it’s been a remarkable turnaround.

January 5, 1991. I remember that night well.

It was Christmas break, but North Carolina State was coming to Lawrence so our group that sat together at KU games all made our way back to Lawrence for the game. We got seats that were slightly closer to the court than we usually had, 5-6 rows behind the KU bench if memory serves. It was a great night to be close. Terry Brown dropped in 11 3-pointers on the way to 42 points. We were in the TV shot most of the time the camera was on the north end of the court. As Terry swished three-after-three in the second half, there we were high-fiving, jumping up-and-down, and hugging.

Elijah Johnson didn’t get 40 Monday, but he was damn close. The closest since Terry Brown went for his 42. A huge night for a guy who had struggled all season, for a variety of reasons.

I love Elijah, not just for the obvious reason that he plays for KU. Or that he made some of the biggest plays along the way to the Final Four last year, notably in the Purdue game which saved me a lot of grief. I love him because he’s the latest in the run of KU guys who are thoughtful and interesting to listen to when they talk to the media. He’s right up there with Keith Langford and Nick Collison as a guy who isn’t going to just say the obligatory cliches and get out of the interview room quickly.

When Elijah talks, it’s going to be deep. Travis Releford may have the old-man game, but Elijah has an old-man wisdom to his public statements. My favorite Elijah comment came on CBS after the Purdue game last year. He was asked about playing a secondary role all season but then being willing to step up in crunch time of the biggest game of the year (to that point). What took him so long? Was the question.

“I was learnin’,” was his simple, honest response.

He went on to say that he had to watch Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson lead the team to learn how to do it. He had to see other players take big shots, succeed and fail, to understand that it wasn’t just about his physical abilities but how he integrated them into the team.

At last fall’s Big 12 media day he went into great detail about how he was teaching younger guys like Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor about the rigors of Division 1 basketball. It wasn’t a statement full of platitudes some media coach had drilled into his head before he spoke. He was speaking extemporaneously, just letting the words flow, sharing his true thoughts on his own maturity and how it was going for his freshmen teammates. It’s such a refreshing change in a game where a lot of guys mumble rehearsed responses or say the same thing after every game.

Elijah is miscast as a lead guard, but he’s worked hard to do what is asked of him. He’s not been healthy all year, so who knows if Monday night was a sign he’s truly 100% or just a one-night burst of adrenaline and senior leadership that helped will himself to one of the best performances ever by a KU guard. Whatever happens form here on, KU fans won’t forget his contributions last year, nor the night he went all Reggie Miller in Ames.