Regardless of what takes place over the weekend in New Orleans, Kansas has already had a phenomenal season. No other team in the country has come as far from opening day to the Final Four as the Jayhawks. Bill Self should have won coach of the year. We can only argue Tom Izzo did as much with the same, perhaps less to be fair as there are no lottery picks on Michigan State’s squad, but Self has brought his team all the way, while Izzo fell short.
Kansas entered the season with most tagging them as in a rebuilding process. Last year’s squad lost a grand total of three games heading into the tournament, where it just happened to run at a red-hot VCU. The Jayhawks now had to deal with the departures of Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Josh Selby, Brady Morningstar, Tyrrell Reed and Mario Little, with Tyshawn Taylor as the only significant piece from the squad led by Cole Aldrich, Xavier Henry and Sherron Collins few years ago still a part of the core.
Kansas entered the season ranked 13th in the pools and even that sounded like an overvaluation. On very small samples, we knew Thomas Robinson had a ton of talent but we didn’t know his production would hold up in a maximized role. And no team that has Taylor running point should be taken seriously, right? In terms of depth, not only key contributors like Morningstar and Reed graduated but a projected rotation player in Royce Woolridge transferred to Kansas State.
The Jayhawks would have to rely on unknown quantities in Jeff Withey, Kevin Young, Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson; all good players that had been productive with limited playing time and low usage (or Young’s case, on a low major program, at Loyola Marymount) but unproven on their maximized roles at the very best level. Most experts projected KU to finally relinquish the Big 12 crown.
Five months later, here’s Kansas at the Final Four. That’s because the Jayhawks enjoyed remarkable progression from their players during the year, to a point where they arrive in New Orleans as a legit contender and not just a mere overachiever. And that’s the case because of Self’s job from the get-go. According to USA Today’s Jeff Sagarin, Kansas played the second toughest schedule in the country during the regular season, an endurance test that has, no doubt, played a role on the team’s development.
Of course we should not overlook Robinson’s greatness. Again, we all knew he was going to be something but no one expected him to eventually become the runner-up for national player of the year. Robinson is projected as a high lottery pick on the upcoming draft as he led the nation in defensive rebounding percentage and ranked second in total rebounding percentage, per basketball-reference, and 19th in PER, per ESPN.com, during the regular season, exemplifying how great a season he has had.
Meanwhile, though Taylor has proved mostly he’s not a true point-guard, he hasn’t held them back either. Tyshawn hasn’t seemed to make all the right decisions on video but quantified data says he’s had a very good year during the regular-season, posting .575 true-shooting percentage – thanks in large part to 38.5% shooting from three-point range – and 29.3% assist-rate, although the 19.2% turnover rate has been an issue, on 27.4% usage-rate, according to basketball-reference. And it should be mentioned he’s 0-17 from three-point range in the tournament.
And the supporting cast should get a whole bunch of credit too. Their depth stepped up as the likes of Jeff Withey (sixth in the nation in block percentage), Kevin Young (89.4 defensive-rating), Travis Releford (.553 effective field-goal percentage), Conner Teahan (36.9% three-point shooting during the regular season) and Elijah Johnson (20.8% assist-rate) have all come through by contributing on their defined roles.
Throughout the entire year, Kansas has played as a one cohesive unit that performs and executes on both ends on the floor as, according to Ken Pomeroy, the Jawhawks rank fourth in division I in adjusted defensive-efficiency and 16th in adjusted offensive-efficiency. Per Team Rankings, KU ranks fourth in shooting defense, 18th in shooting-percentage and 25th in assists-per-possession. And much of the credit goes to Self.
Against Ohio State, Kansas is over-matched on paper but has a fair shot at advancing to Monday’s game. Withey might be a tough matchup for Jared Sullinger as he will challenge the one aspect of Sullinger’s game people are skeptical about, whether or not he can score over length; while on the other end, it’s hard to picture Evan Ravenel containing Robinson; with the tough draws for KU being Aaron Craft possibly forcing enough bad decisions out of Taylor to kill their rhythm and the fact that they have no fitting defender to throw at William Buford.
This run has a feeling of destiny attached to it but whether they will survive the Buckeyes or not won’t change how amazing a season this has been for Kansas, anchored by a great coaching job by Bill Self. Based on talent, competition, expectations and degree of contention, nobody has done better. It’s just a tremendous accomplishment for the Jayhawks just to be where they are, taking into consideration their starting point, but don’t be shocked if KU is the last standing. Based on their remarkable progression, one might argue it has all been leading up to it.