Boys to Men

Claiming the Big 12 Tournament championship by thumping Texas won't erase the beating the Longhorns delivered in January, or bring back the nation's longest active home court winning streak. But Phog.net's Jim Williamson chimes in on what it does prove.

Kansas' 85-73 Big 12 tournament final win over Texas won't erase the January beat-down the Longhorns administered in Allen Field House back in January. It won't retroactively extend the 69-game home winning streak. It won't erase the emotion of that afternoon.

It did, however, seal the deal that the Jayhawks are clearly the best team in the Big 12 and deserving of the number one seed in the NCAA tournament's Southwest Region.

For what seems like the first time since freshman Josh Selby's electrifying debut against USC – what ever happened to that kid, anyway? – karma regarded the Kansas Jayhawks and, after a long time, said, "Boys, I'm going to shoot you a break."

I never say a team deserves to win a game or a tournament. But – and I don't care how ironic this sounds when talking about a team that's 31-2 – this group deserved to have something good happen.

The biggest worry for most college basketball team is keeping up with their Twitters and where to go after the game. All teams face adversity: egos, injuries, basic knuckleheadedness, maybe even the occasional run-in with the local constabulary.

The Jayhawks had more than their share of that kind of stuff this season. There was Josh Selby's nine-game suspension to start the season. Then Tyshawn Taylor upheld a KU tradition almost as old as waving the wheat by doing something dopey. This time, his undisclosed indiscretion earned him a two-game seat on the Jayhawks bench. And let's not forget Mario Little's arrest for behavior that still strikes me as so non-Mario Little, I wonder if he has an evil twin.

Those are the kinds of problems that college basketball programs deal with all too frequently these days. The thing is, they deal with them. Practices are held, games get won and lost, the season goes on.

It was the off-the-court problems – and I mean, way off the court – that truly tested this Kansas team not just as athletes but as people.

The kind of adversity that this Kansas team faced – the deaths of sophomore forward's Thomas Robinson's mother, grandmother and grandfather in the space of a month – is the kind that cancels practices and can, for all intents and purposes, end a season.

Kansas fans everywhere would have been understood if Robinson would have needed to be shut down for awhile. In fact, if he hadn't played another minute this season, I would have understood. I can't imagine what he experienced.

Truth be told, after talking with members of the team about the impact Lisa Robinson's sudden and unexpected death made not just on T-Rob but on all of them, I was concerned about the entire team.

I wasn't questioning the team's resiliency, character or resolve. My worry was, there aren't many adults who could handle losing two grandparents and a parent in a month. So why would I expect 19- and 20-year-olds to be able to do so? After everything these young men had been through, I simply didn't know if they would be equipped to deal with it all.

So I found myself Saturday evening feeling truly happy for the Jayhawks as the clock wound down in their rematch with the Longhorns. I saw smiles of genuine, unabashed joy on their faces. By beating the same Texas team that overcame a tidal wave of crimson and blue emotion back in January and hung on until a sleepless, tearful night finally took its toll, they'd come through on the other side. It was okay to be happy again. They'd taken care of business on and off the floor.

Sports fans talk a lot about watching players "grow up before their eyes." That usually means they don't take dumb shots or try to make impossible passes anymore. As KU fans, we're certainly entitled to do that.

But we can also say we've seen this team steeled by the trials and tribulations that they've endured together. "FOE" isn't just a catchy slogan or something you see on a rubber bracelet; it's a reminder of everything these guys have been through and the strength they'll always take away from it.

Sure, we can say we've seen the Jayhawks "grow up," but when the season ends – whether it ends next weekend, on a Monday night in April or sometime in between – we need to remember that we saw a bunch of basketball players become men.

That's a lot more important.


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