Jayhawks defy logic, history and Hummel
Bill Self doesn’t like to talk about things that might make his players think too much or second-guess themselves. Free throws, for example, are never discussed. “Why talk about what you can’t control?” Self says.
But on Sunday night in Omaha, KU’s coach could not ignore what has bit him so many times — the tension his players feel in that one tournament game when losses of KU’s past weigh them all down.
“Enjoy it,” Self told his team. “Smile. Have fun. Shoot it!”
Once Robbie Hummel put them in a hole, the Jayhawks weren’t really sure how they were ever going to enjoy this, how they were going get themselves out of this hole and who was going to do the lifting.
At halftime, Self told his players, among other things, they had to quit second-guessing themselves. If they were going to lose, they better go down firing.
The shot that finally gave Kansas the lead 36 minutes and 56 seconds into the game was one Elijah Johnson probably should have thought twice about taking. Kansas had a chance to tie for the first time and Tyshawn Taylor had shoveled the ball to Johnson about four feet behind the 3-point line. The smart thing to do was set the offense, get a bucket and tie the game.
Johnson, in the moment, didn’t think about what the smart thing was to do. He stepped into his shot, elevated and buried it.
“He took that shot with a smile on his face, too,” Taylor said. “Everybody go watch the tape. He smiled when he shot that.”
Johnson couldn’t stop smiling after KU’s 63-60 win, and how could you not? The win defied logic, Hummel and history. It was Self at his best, Thomas Robinson at his worst and a season’s worth of lessons all tied into one game.
Ben McLemore, take a bow
The Big 12 had two of the oddest teams in recent memory this year in Missouri and Iowa State. What made them so odd was both won with four guards depending mostly on jump shots.
For a traditional team like Kansas, which plays two big men and three perimeter players, it was extremely difficult to match up with MU and ISU. Kansas is at its best with Jeff Withey on the court, but Withey couldn’t be on the court against those teams unless Robinson could guard a guard.
So to prepare for the odd matchups that both teams presented, Self has had Robinson guard Ben McLemore at practice the last few months.
“Guarding him, you won’t know until next year, but you’ll know how good of defense I can play once you see him play,” Robinson said.
It became obvious early on Sunday night that Robinson could not guard Hummel, so Self switched Robinson onto Terone Johnson. Johnson and Lewis Jackson are Purdue’s two best perimeter players, and they rarely shoot from the perimeter — they combined for 28 3-pointers all season. The challenge with both was keeping them out of the paint. Purdue likes to set a lot of ball screens for Jackson and Johnson, so Self decided that KU would switch everything, which left Robinson guarding the 5-foot-9 Jackson on multiple occasions.
“I was scared to death every time I saw Tyshawn switch off and that little guard was in front of me,” Robinson said.
Robinson had one of his worst offensive games ever, missing shot after shot that he tried to will into the basket. He compensated by helping in the two areas where he could impose his will — defense and rebounding.
Robinson’s block of Jackson’s layup with just over three minutes left set up Johnson’s go-ahead 3-pointer. Then after Johnson had given KU its second and final lead on his steal and layup, Robinson found himself on Jackson again. Jackson couldn’t shake the big man, so he handed the ball off to Hummel, who missed a shot that Robinson contested. Robinson then came up with the rebound, zipped a pass over to Taylor and Taylor went in for the jam.
“Me and Tyshawn wasn’t there at all, so we had to find other ways to be effective in the game,” Robinson said. “I had to rebound, I had to play defense and that’s what it came down to.”
Self’s tactical move
Simply taking Robinson off Hummel was not the only solution for KU’s defense. Effort is usually all the Jayhawks need to adjust to play great defense. That was the lesson from losses to Davidson and Baylor. Self pleaded with his team to defend with more effort against Purdue, but that wasn’t really hard to convince them to do once they had to start playing from behind.
Yet Self knew that just playing hard wasn’t going to cut it. Matt Painter had come up with a brilliant plan for how to stop Robinson and Taylor. He bracketed Robinson with multiple defenders at all time, almost playing a zone with three of his players in the paint. That made it hard for Robinson to get scoring angles and for Taylor to find space to penetrate.
Whereas Painter was begging the Jayhawks to shoot outside, Self knew he couldn’t win if Hummel, D.J. Byrd and Ryne Smith kept getting up clean looks. So Self went to a triangle-and-two at the end of the first half and much of the second half, and he used Johnson, Travis Releford and Conner Teahan to face-guard Hummel.
“There was more going on, at least in our mind, maybe my mind, than what there is most games,” Self said, “because it felt like every possession there was a chance you were going to have to try to change something.”
Self wasn’t over-thinking because the move worked — Hummel only got up three 3-pointers in the second half and missed them all.
Both coaches coached brilliantly, countering every move and substitution. Self knew his team and its tendencies and he didn’t ignore those things. When Johnson threw the alley oop to Taylor to pull KU within one point with 1:02 left, Self ignored traditional logic and called his final timeout.
“I just wanted to make sure we were organized defensively,” he said. “It seems, knowing our team, if we can look at each other and be in a timeout and say, ‘This is what we are going to do,’ we have a better chance of doing it than if we just trust to go do it.”
Self’s intuition was right, as Kansas guarded perfectly and Johnson came up with the steal and layup that won the game.
It’s still hard to believe.
“I kept telling the guys, ‘Hey, we’re going to win the game,’ but I wasn’t exactly believing what I was telling them.” –Bill Self
Self reminded his team after the game that in 2008 the Jayhawks played a game against Davidson that they weren’t even close to playing their best, and they won.
“Most of the teams that do really well in the NCAA tournament, they win one that maybe they didn’t play their best, and this was certainly our one,” Self said.
This one was unreal. Even in ’08 in the Elite Eight, Kansas was right with Davidson most of the game and led about half the time. The Jayhawks led for 45 seconds against Purdue.
It was also KU’s worst shooting performance from any of Self’s 266 wins at Kansas. The Jayhawks had an effective FG percentage of 38.7 percent, which was their eighth-worst shooting performance in Self’s nine seasons. If the game had ended before Johnson’s 3-pointer, it would have been the worst — KU’s effective FG percentage was 36.1 percent at that point.
All Self’s brilliant moves and the great defense KU played in the second half wouldn’t have mattered if not for Johnson’s 3-pointer.
In a moment where everyone else around him was tense, Johnson was smiling.