Next Sunday I’m going to be walking on a beach, swimming in a pool, and otherwise enjoying the Florida sun on day two of our week on Captiva Island. God forbid there is rain or it suddenly gets cool and I’m forced to watch basketball all day. Because I think my plan next weekend is going to be to soak in the much-needed warmth of Florida and not spend much time watching the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
[^1: I say that despite today being the first day over 70 in Indy since late October. It’s back to the 40s by Wednesday, though.
Because I have a terrible feeling about how next Sunday is going to go for my Jayhawks. And that’s only, of course, if they get by New Mexico State on Friday, a game I’ll have to follow on my phone while driving through Tennessee and Georgia. Should they survive Friday, they are rewarded with either a mercurial and maddening Indiana team, that has never been as good as it should be – likely held back by the man calling plays from he bench – and a hungry, amped up, woefully under-seeded Wichita State team that could cap their fantastic three-year run by knocking off the mighty Jayhawks who refuse to schedule them.
I think my biggest hope for the weekend is that Wichita State spends the week bitching about how there’s no way they should be a 7 seed and get hammered by the basketball gods for their hubris.
(Seriously, what’s the deal with KU getting stuck with experienced Missouri Valley teams that are dropped 2–3 slots below where they should be? No way was Northern Iowa an 8 seed in 2010.)
My expectations were low this year anyway. I’ve been telling people for weeks that KU would not survive the first weekend of the tournament. Size deficiencies, injury issues, and the Cliff Alexander suspension seemed to make KU the most likely high seed to go out early this year.
And I was fine with that. They extended the conference championship streak and won 26 games before the NCAA tournament, which is really a fantastic set of accomplishments.
But Wichita freaking State?
Like I said, I may just enjoy the sun and avoid the TV next Sunday.
I was involved in an interesting discussion regarding this year’s KU team over the weekend. Let me preface by saying that our current culture of hyper-communication makes all sports discussions seem more negative than they used to be. And each year they seem to get worse.
But I don’t know that a recent KU team has been as unloved as this one. I blame Kentucky. The Wildcats destroying KU in the second game of the season put a damper on the year from almost the beginning. And then I think a ton of KU fans look to Kentucky, and how John Calipari has collected talent and got them to play so well, and wonder why KU’s one-and-doners haven’t done the same. Last year with Andrew Wiggins and a partial year from Joel Embiid KU was still erratic. Aside from a couple games, the team never really seemed to mesh into a powerful whole.
This year Kelly Oubre took two months to figure out how to play at this level, and Cliff Alexander never got going before his suspension. Meanwhile Kentucky was going 97–0.
While I’ve been bummed by the sense of entitlement coming from some KU fans who insist that X amount of talent should guarantee Y level of success, I admit I’ve been affected by it. I haven’t loved watching this year’s team. Partially because they rarely seem to get more than two guys playing well at a time and show maddening lapses in concentration and effectiveness. Partially because so many people have bitched about this year’s team.
I realized Friday night, after KU beat Baylor for the third time this year, that it’s really been a remarkable season. Looking back at the Big 12 schedule, I honestly can’t explain how they won a few of those games. How do they come back from 18 down against West Virginia without Perry Ellis on the court and without hitting a single 3-pointer? How do they battle against a much bigger Texas team and twice erase six-point second half leads, once without Alexander? How do they take on a white-hot Baylor team with a gimpy Ellis Friday night and win going away? How do they build a 17-point lead against Iowa State Saturday and go into the final minute of the game tied before watching the Cyclones make the big plays late?
The answer is easy: this team is way tougher than you realize at first glance. I think we miss that because the team lacks that single, fiery leader who is the focal point. There’s no Russell Robinson or Darnell Jackson as on the ’08 team. No Sherron Collins. No Thomas Robinson. There isn’t that one alpha leader who will threaten to kick your ass if you don’t play as hard as he does. There isn’t the visible, emotional leader who exudes competitiveness and confidence in a game’s biggest moments.
Just a bunch of guys who have quietly gotten much better on the defensive end of the court and learned how to just keep plugging away no matter how ugly the offense is. Frank Mason might raise his arms a little. Kelly Oubre and Wayne Simien might pump their fists. Perry Ellis might raise his eyebrows. But they don’t raise temperature of the building all on their own.
That’s the one thing that gives me hope for next week. Maybe they can finally start hitting shots again. Maybe the minutes and production from Landon Lucas and Hunter Mickelson since Alexander was suspended will make the difference against a smaller team like Wichita State or Indiana. Probably not, but there’s a chance.
If they get through the first weekend of the tournament, it’s going to be because of that quiet toughness and confidence that has been built up since that terrible night against Kentucky back in November.
- Fundamental difference between coaches/players complaining about their seed/opponents and fans doing it. You’re supposed to bitch if you’re a fan! ↩