KU Learned the Keys to a Final Four in KC

Self's right: three tough games should be good for the Jayhawks. More from Phog.net's Jim Williamson, inside.

One of KU coach Bill Self’s mantras after a close game has always been, “We needed a game like this.”

So it was no surprise when he said it following KU’s 64-54 opening round win over Nebraska Friday.

And after KU’s gritty 77-71 victory over Texas A&M Saturday.

And after KU’s slugfest 84-74 title game triumph over budding rival Texas Sunday.

“We needed a game like this.”

Usually, I take this as so much coach-speak, a line inspired by the faculty and staff at the Crash Davis School of Sports Soundbites. But having had the chance to watch the games again, maybe this time, it isn’t.

Looking back, the Big 12 tournament was something of a three-game microcosm of a typical NCAA title run. Each game offered different lessons that probably are the keys to Kansas playing to their #1 Midwest seed.

Here are some of the valuable lessons that the Jayhawks were reminded of over the weekend that will come in handy starting next Thursday.

Lesson 1: When you get behind and the shots aren’t falling, don’t panic.
KU found itself behind all three teams they played this weekend. They found themselves on the short end of a 27-22 halftime score Friday evening against Nebraska, of all people. The ‘Huskers didn’t luck into that five-point halftime lead; they controlled the tempo in a half when the Jayhawks had a tough time finding the hoop.

KU played much better – not great, but much better – in the second half. They shot better, they protected the ball better, they rebounded better. The result was a 10-point win.

It’s also worth noting that the Jayhawks didn’t get out of their offense once they got behind. Luckily, they haven’t been behind a lot this season, but I’ve never seen a team deviate from what they do when they get behind in crunch time faster than this one. Put them down eight points with six minutes left and watch the 24-footers and out-of-control drives to the hoop start to fly.

Not on Friday.

Barring some sort of six-day blitzkrieg the likes of which the NCAA tournament has never seen, there’s going to be a game when Kansas finds themselves down against a good opponent. They can’t freak. They have to remember there’s no seven-point shot. They have to remember to make the simple play instead of trying to make the great play. They have to remember to keep their composure and remember what got them there.

Granted, this was Nebraska Friday night. They didn’t do it against Texas or Wisconsin or even UNLV. But they did it, and regardless of who you do it against, it’s a lesson that will need to be recalled, probably before they get to San Antonio.

Lesson 2: When an opponent gets nasty, nothing says you can’t get nasty, too.
Kansas squared off against the Texas A&M Aggies on February 3, 2007. That game was won, 69-66, by a tough-minded, physical A&M squad that just wouldn’t quit, even after the Jayhawks had punched them in the mouth a third and fourth time.

Saturday’s tournament semi-final was eerily reminiscent of that 2007 contest. The score was tied, 34 all, at the half with the Aggies pummeling Kansas on the boards, 22-12. Texas A&M didn’t stay in the game with great shooting or amazing defense; the halftime tie was all about controlling the glass.

Every time KU would start to get some separation from A&M in the second half, the Aggies would make a mini-run to get the game back within reach. But KU matched A&M’s inside presence rebound-for-rebound, 13-13, in the second half. This may not sound like much, but it most likely made the difference in the game.

At some point in the tournament, Kansas will have to limit an opponent to one shot by being tougher and more physical inside and making the most of their own offensive boards. They did it Saturday against a NCAA tournament team with an inside presence most teams would love to have. Failure to do so will probably mean an early spring break.

Lesson 3: When you have to execute flawlessly – or at least close to it – you can.
Sunday’s Texas game left absolutely no room for error, particularly during the first half, one of the best halves of college basketball you’re ever going to see. For what seemed like the first time in a long time, Kansas not only executed consistently over the course of the entire game, but in crunch time, they finished in a fashion far superior to their opponent.

In the first half, Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush and a revived Darrell Arthur combined for 37 points, nearly answering the 40 that the Longhorn trio of D.J. Augustin, Justin Mason and Damion James posted.

But in the second half, Rush, Chalmers and Arthur kept rolling and scored 28 combined points while the Kansas defense clamped down to hold Texas’ big three to just 10 points on 2-of-17 shooting.

KU held Texas to zero field goals and just three little points over the final 4:42 on 0-for-6 shooting. The Jayhawks connected on 9-of-10 from the free throw line and added two more field goals – a jumper by Arthur at the 4:08 mark to give KU and 72-71 lead and a three by Chalmers to make it 75-71 with just 1:52 remaining – during that same span.

Something else to notice was that as Augustin cut and slashed his way to the rim or knocked down the 22-footer with a Jayhawk in his jersey, no one on the Jayhawk side showed any body language that indicated frustration. Instead, I saw more determination and – dare I say it? – “wont to” than I’ve seen in some time. When Kansas plays with that kind of confidence and purpose, no one in the country can beat them.

Sunday’s championship win should remind the ‘Hawks that when an opponent starts to go nuts – hitting threes from the parking lot or making circus shots or, maybe, just playing great basketball – they can not only go toe-to-toe with them, but they can finish strong and put away a really, really good team in the closing minutes.

Phog.net Top Stories