The talk heading into Round one for KU was about being loose and going in with a free mind. Well, quite honestly, sometimes talk is cheap.
"We were loose, loosey-goosey all that stuff," KU head coach Bill Self told reporters. "You get in the locker room and run out there and all of a sudden it feels just a tinge different. I really believe it was probably good for us to feel that. And hopefully we'll relax a little bit more and be ready from the jump ball Sunday."
In a high pressure NCAA situation it is much easier said than done even when you are an overwhelming favorite as Kansas was against Boston University. Suddenly easy bunnies were missed inside and against a clogged up zone outside shots were going awry. It had a similar feel to the 63-62 win in the Big 12 Tournament against Oklahoma State.
"Yeah, there were some jitters early on," admitted senior Tyrel Reed. "I think it was kind of both ways. They came out and hit some shots. The game got a little tight."
"Yeah, it was definitely being tight," said Marcus Morris who led the team with 16 points. "We had on our ball screen defense wasn't that well, and we weren't really guarding the dribble drive."
Kansas looked just as tight against Lehigh, also a 16 seed, just a season ago. Leading up to this year's matchup with BU this team swore they were a much looser bunch. But with just a 33-29 edge at the half quite the contrary was apparent. Self came into the locker room at halftime and let his team know that they weren't loose at all.
"He was upset, but he wasn't screaming and yelling," said Reed who scored 8 points on Friday. "We knew what we had to do. We just had to get going. I thought we played looser."
"I think we finally just went out and started playing," said Markieff Morris who scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half. "I think the first half we were tight and coach said we've just got to loosen up some and have fun out there. When we were able to go on that run, I think that that broke the game open and they couldn't stop us after that."
KU found its stride and did look looser in the second half, especially Markieff Morris. This team has also learned to fall back on its defense when the offense isn't so "pretty". Eventually it all led to a 72-53 victory and a second round matchup against Self's former school Illinois.
Being looser wasn't the only lesson learned from last year's Northern Iowa loss. The players don't want to hear it or see the press clippings anymore but it is in the back of everyone's minds, especially Self's.
Whether its a result of last year's 2nd round disappointment or not Self is employing some pressure consistently no matter the opponent in this tournament. He chose not to pressure Northern Iowa until the final minutes when KU was trying to come back. This year Self is employing some 3/4 court and some token full court pressure. You saw it against BU with even a couple of traps on ball screens and in the second half it appeared to energize KU. This was intentional. Self said this wasn't a strategy he wanted to use for just one game, he will continue to do it as the tournament marches on.
We've talked ad nauseum about how important Tyshawn Taylor is to the success of this team and Taylor again played well with 10 points, 7 assists, and 3 turnovers, but Self said on Saturday morning it was a calculated move to try and get freshman Josh Selby some confidence in his first NCAA Tournament game. Taylor is critical but it wouldn't hurt KU to get some meaningful minutes out of Selby.
"Today was a game in which he gave us a boost," Self said. "It was positive. The ball still didn't go in the hole for him, and I believe it will and the lid's going to come off. But he was certainly a boost for us in the second half."
Selby got 15 minutes of playing time and scored 4 points on 2-6 shooting. May not sound like a big deal but he made a couple of real confident drives and had a couple of assists. If KU can get him going it makes the Jayhawks even tougher and gives Self a plethora of options when one of the guards has an off day.
"Second half my team told me that they needed me to bring energy and do what I do: play defense, make easy layups," said Selby who admitted he was nervous in his first NCAA game. "So I tried to come out and play with a lot of intensity, stop my man from scoring and make buckets I usually make. Actually, that gave us a spark and I'm happy I could do that for the team."
And now 8 years later it finally happens. Self will take on his old team, Illinois. At least the fan base will make it that way and maybe even some who are still sour in the Illini athletic department, but on the court Self and Illini head coach Bruce Weber will never take a dribble or shot. On the court this is Kansas vs. Illinois.
The media will regurgitate the bitterness over Self leaving and the "funeral" comment made by Weber. But really what should concern people is KU cracking a stout defensive performance by the Illini and an inspired Demitri McCamey. On the other side Illinois is going to be dealing with the talent and speed of Kansas, the type of matchup Illinois has struggled with in the past, but for the Illini its a whole new season.
"They have a great team, great program," Weber said. "Bill has done a tremendous job. The success there that they've had the season -- it's probably for them -- I don't know. They were rated high, but its gone, even with some distractions, better than maybe they thought, lot of weapons, lot of steady play, some big guys inside."
Weber amidst whispers of his job being in jeopardy will get a crack at a win that would likely silence the critics for awhile.
"I don't think so," Weber answered when asking if it was odd to be playing the man he replaced. "It's been such a long time. Both Lon and Bill did a tremendous job at Illinois. I respect them. Everywhere they've been they've been very good coaches."
There is no doubt at Illinois, (Lon Kruger and Self) helped the program. I'm just worried about Kansas. That's what I'm really worried about in their players. Seeing if we can match-up with them."
Don't make the mistake in concentrating on the back story in this one. The real story will happen on the court.