Jayhawks Have Their Game Faces On

SAN ANTONIO — Bill Self admits he's been having trouble sleeping the last few days. With his Jayhawks set to battle North Carolina on Saturday in the Final Four at approximately 7:47 p.m. (CST), the KU coach has been tossing and turning while playing over game situations in his mind.

“I have no problems falling asleep, I can’t stay asleep right now,” Bill Self said Friday afternoon outside the KU locker room at the Alamodome. “My mind is really reeling. I was thinking the other night, ‘OK, we’re up three, there’s 55 seconds left, they’re not going to foul. What are we going to run?’ If I can get me a good five or six hours (of sleep tonight), I would be happy.”

Self knows this is the biggest game of his career and his players’ careers. But he just may get a peaceful sleep tonight. After all, on the eve of the Final Four, Self doesn’t have to worry about KU’s focus. He’s recently noticed some differences with his normally quiet team.

With the stakes so high, it seems the Jayhawks have been more vocal than usual in practice.

“I think all of our guys have done a good job of getting outside of their comfort zones,” Self said. “I don’t mean that from a fact they didn’t try or do it before, but this (Final Four) is amped up a little bit. So I really think if somebody doesn’t do what they’re supposed to do, it’s a lot easier for a teammate to tell the other guys about it, or a lot easier for a teammate to encourage another guy to do something better because it means so much to all the players.”

Even reserved junior Brandon Rush is coming out of his shell.

“Brandon has been showing a lot of emotion the last couple of days,” said senior Darnell Jackson “I’ve never known Brandon to do that, but one day he snapped at practice on a couple of guys. It shocked me because he’s one of the guys who’s always calm and collected. He wants it more than everybody. He wants the same thing coach Self wants and the same thing that the fans want.

“He’s going to lead this team to a victory as long as he plays well and we follow. When he’s out there just making plays and getting other guys involved, he brings a lot of confidence out of us.”

The Jayhawks have been playing with a lot of confidence in practice this week.

“I think our mindset has been great,” Self said. “We have practiced shorter, but very, very crisp and hard. I think there will be nerves (against ‘Carolina). I don’t expect us to come out and be free and loose and easy like we were at home games when maybe there wasn’t the tension of this one, but once the game settles down, I think our guys will be fine.”

This game will be a battle. North Carolina (36-2) has won 14 straight games, while KU (35-3) is on an 11-game winning streak.

Of course, Self is worried about defending national Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough (22.8 ppg, 10.3 rpg). And then you have speedy sophomore point guard Ty Lawson (12.8 ppg, 5.3 apg), sophomore two guard Wayne Ellington (16.6 ppg), junior swingman Danny Green (11.4 ppg), sophomore forward Deon Thompson (8.4 ppg), junior swingman Marcus Ginyard (7.1 ppg), and sophomore forward Alex Stepheson (4.4 ppg).

And they can all run.

“Everyone concerns me,” Self said. “I think it all starts with their transition. It’s easier said than done to get back. Their philosophy in running isn’t, ‘We just run.’ There’s definitely a lot of thought that’s gone into it and a method behind the madness. So we have to do a real good job defending the first five to 10 seconds of the possession. That may sound very simple, but that’s very accurate because they’ll get shots up in that time frame.

“If you don’t do that, now it becomes a rotation rebounding game because you’re going to have guards blocking off bigs ... and they are fantastic at running to the glass out of transition. ... I don’t think it’s very complicated (regarding the game plan). We better run. We better get our butts back when they secure possession, and we better attack and take care of the basketball.”

North Carolina is a potent offensive team. The Tar Heels are second in the country in scoring at 89.2 points per game.

“We can’t let them get on an unbelievable offensive roll, but we’re going to have to score because they score so easy,” Self said. “We could be great defensively and they can still hang 80 on you. That will be a huge key, but both (offense and defense) will be huge because I think one definitely leads to another.”

With North Carolina’s fast break attack, look for Self to rotate his bigs more than usual.

“Because the game is going to be so fast, you’re not going to be able to play two guys 10 minutes at a time,” Self said. “So we’re going to have all four of our big guys play. Sasha (Kaun) is our best low-post defender. Obviously, ‘Carolina has a guy (Hansbrough) that scores well in the low post. You could think (Kaun) would be a huge asset for us.”

Kaun is up for the challenge.

“(Hansbrough) knows how to get his shot up using his body as a kind of blocking you off,” Kaun said. “You just have to match his energy up and try to eliminate some easy points he always gets, like dunks off offensive rebounds. Try to always box him out and put a body on him and kind of wear him down that way.”

Keeping Hansbrough and the Tar Heels off the boards will certainly be a big key for Kansas. ‘Carolina leads the country in rebounding margin (11.5).

“They are a great rebounding team and we need to try to control that,” Rush said.

And what else?

“We also need to limit the number of times Tyler touches the ball and make Ellington (UNC leader with 77 three-pointers) work for it,” Rush said.

The Big Dance may have started on March 20 against Portland State in Omaha, Neb., but the biggest dance of all comes Saturday at the Alamodome.

“We’ve been watching (North Carolina) all year and waiting for this moment to play against the best of the best,” said senior Russell Robinson. “It’s going to take us coming out and playing with a lot of energy, running with them and playing hard.”

And Robinson relishes KU’s rare role as the underdog.

“I’m excited about it,” he said. “The past two times I’ve been an underdog, I’ve gone 2-0. My sophomore year we played Texas in the Big 12 Championship and they were heavily favored. And last season against Florida, we were underdogs. We won both of those games. There’s just something about being in those games that’s different than others where we came out really aggressive.”

KU was heavily favored against Davidson in the Elite Eight last week and came out tight, winning by just two points (59-57). Now, Kansas can play more relaxed.

“The tough part was getting here, now we can just let the shackles down and go play our basketball,” said sophomore forward Darrell Arthur.

Self has preached to his players they can’t be satisfied just reaching the Final Four.

“(He told us) you’ve got to feel the salivation in your mouth because you guys are close, but (still not) there,” said sophomore Sherron Collins. “It’s our last two games. (He said), ‘Go out there, give it our all, leave it all out there.’”

The more outspoken Rush is ready to play the game of his life. He certainly knows the significance of Saturday’s game.

If KU wins, the ‘Hawks will reach the championship game on Monday night and set a school record with their 36th victory of the year.
It’s the Final Four in prime time; all of the nation will be watching.

For Rush, basketball doesn’t get any better than this.

“I think it’s going to be the most important game we ever play in our life because it’s on the biggest stage of anybody’s career,” Rush said.

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