It’s the big money question this time of year – which teams will survive and advance?
When you were filling out your bracket, the conversation probably went something like this – “team A can really score”, or “team B has the best player in the country,” and these are the teams that you advanced in your bracket.
But the key to figuring out who will stand tall on that special Tuesday in April is figuring out which team can weather the storm on an “off” night. In other words, you can’t take the team that will make it to the next round IF they shoot well from three, or IF they stay out of foul trouble.
When studying the brackets I’ve learned it’s not about what teams are good at. It’s about what teams do when things aren’t exactly going their way.
Look at past NCAA champions – they all had something in common. They all had that something extra that allowed them to survive a close call. Let’s face it, very rarely will any team play their best ball for six straight games. But you do need to win six in a row to be crowned NCAA champs.
One of the best examples was Michigan State in 2000. Not a great shooting team, but a terrific team that always had the constants – defense and rebounding. Texas A&M showed it in round 1 on Thursday. The Aggies sure didn’t have their A-game but their defense, toughness, and rebounding pulled them through.
Kansas has looked brilliant during its current win streak and they’ve also squeaked by a couple of times. The Jayhawks proved they are equipped to respond to adverse situations when things aren’t going their way. They’ve found ways to win and at this time of the year, that’s all that’s important. No style points are given anymore.
If Kansas does get to the national title game it won’t be after playing five perfect games that’s for sure. Bill Self has a bunch of tough, resilient players, but like any coach, realizes there is always room for improvement.
“There are always droughts or bad moments. I am very pleased right now with how we have responded in certain situations. We're very good defensively, but we can be better. From a toughness standpoint, we have to rebound the ball better. We did not rebound the ball well in Oklahoma City last week,” said KU head coach Bill Self. “That is a sign of toughness. We were fourth in the country in rebounding margin and in Oklahoma City, we were only plus-one. We have to steal some possessions. From a mental standpoint, I am very proud of our guys. For a bunch of young guys, they have done a really fine job."
The fans and media will harp on KU’s last two first round disappointments but this team, though some of the personnel remain the same, is wired differently. This team has depth, balance, toughness, talent, and is as good defensively as any team in the nation. There are no superstars, but there are no egos. The Jayhawks have also shown they can win when a game’s in the 60’s or the 80’s.
“The teams we have played recently have done a good job of trying to keep us out of the open court. Our strategy is to play how we want to play, but we can also play a slower, grind-it-out game. It might not be as artistic, but I think defensively we've become good enough to make people miss on the first shot and if we rebound the ball, our defense has been very good. Playing grind-it-out games is good because those are the types of games you'll play in the tournament eventually if you are fortunate enough to continue deep,” stated Self at his weekly press conference.
There’s not much of a reason to believe that this team cannot accomplish great things.
"I think this team has the highest ceiling of any team I have coached,” said Self heaping high praise on his current Jayhawk squad. “I think that we are still young and we make young mistakes, but we do have a high ceiling. I love this team. I really like how it doesn't matter who it is that has the big game.
During KU’s latest run to a regular season and conference tourney title, the Jayhawks have proved the go-to-guy may change, but the results haven’t. The number of players capable of making big plays gives KU an advantage in this NCAA tournament. You cannot stop just one player and stop Kansas.
“I like that Sherron can go scoreless last week and get 20 points on the big stage. I like that Brandon can miss shots and come back and make them. I like that Mario can score nine points one game and still want the shot to force the game into overtime. Our go-to-guy changes, but I like the balance. They seem to really like each other too. We are, if healthy, equipped to play very well and our depth situation has been very important to us this year."