Teams Defied Expectations To Reach Final Four

As recently as a few weeks ago, many would have scoffed about the thought that either Ohio State or Kansas would reach the Final Four. Tomorrow night, the two teams will face off with a national championship game bid on the line. The two teams talk about how they defied the odds and grew together in this piece.

When Ohio State traveled to Lawrence this year to take on Kansas, it was a matchup of the nation's No. 2 team in the Buckeyes and the No. 13 team in the Jayhawks.

Those lofty rankings make it seem reasonable enough that the Dec. 10 showdown – in which Kansas beat Ohio State, 78-67, while Buckeye star Jared Sullinger sat on the bench with an injury – could be a preview of what was to come at the Final Four.

In fact, that came true, as those two teams will meet tomorrow night in New Orleans in the second national semifinal on college basketball's biggest stage. But to say the Road to the Final Four for either team was easy for either team would be a major fallacy.

"As a team together, we knew that we could do it, but it took a lot of work," Jayhawks big man Thomas Robinson said after KU beat North Carolina on Sunday night to reach the Final Four. "It just wasn't a cakewalk."

The same could be said on the other side of things. Though Ohio State opened the season ranked among the top five in the country and posted huge early wins against Florida and Duke, the journey had its share of bumps.

Even while the Buckeyes were having their early-season success, there were problems underneath the surface in the eyes of head coach Thad Matta. Replacing two senior starters in David Lighty and Jon Diebler and another senior in Dallas Lauderdale, the Buckeyes came into the season with plenty of hype – which only increased with the early triumphs – but lots youth and unknowns.

"As I watched them unfold, we struggled early in terms of kind of mental toughness in practice, finishing out a two hour practice with the intensity it needed to be, which prompted me to say, in mid December, this is the worst practice team I've ever coached," Matta said. "It was probably mid December I said, ‘Fellas, right now, you're a round of 32 team.' That is what it is. We're going to be out in the round of 32 unless some things change."

It didn't happen overnight. First, there was the adversity of Sullinger's back and foot injuries. He was healthy again by the start of the Big Ten season, but the Buckeyes suffered early road losses to Indiana and Illinois.

OSU seemed to have righted the ship with six straight wins in late January and early February, but then came a stretch of three losses in five games, all to ranked teams. The worst might have been a 63-60 loss at home to Wisconsin on Feb. 26 on the team's Senior Night. Afterward, team members spoke of needing to come together and focus on basketball rather than the little things that were keeping them from reaching the potential.

And then a lifeline came the night of Feb. 28 as well when Michigan State, which had held a one-game lead in the standings, lost at Indiana, meaning the Buckeyes had a chance to win the Big Ten with two season-closing victories.

"What turned the corner for me was the night, that Tuesday night, when we realized up in Chicago we've got a chance to win a share of the Big Ten championship," Matta said. "And you win the last two games on the road, and it seemed like it sort of came together there."

Off the court, team members said they began to see some changes, too.

"I mean, stuff like hanging out with each other off the court, talking to each other," sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas said. "A lot of people were quiet, and a lot of that stuff changed. We came together and it shows on the court."

Meanwhile, Kansas' road was perhaps the longer one to traverse. One of the blue bloods of the sport, Kansas entered the season ranked 13th – certainly good, but not the lofty perch the Jayhawks are used to after the losses of their top three scorers in twins Marcus and Markieff Morris and Tyrel Reed as well as Brady Morningstar and Josh Selby.

Early-season losses to Kentucky and Duke on neutral courts within the first five games showed the early skeptics may have had a point, and a loss in famed Allen Fieldhouse to unranked Davidson nine days after the win against OSU didn't help matters as fans and media began to wonder just how good these Jayhawks could be.

"When people doubt you, I know myself personally, I think that's when I perform my best, when somebody doubts me," Robinson said.

With that attitude, the Jayhawks flipped a switch when Big 12 play hit, ripping off seven straight wins to start the conference season on the way to an eighth straight regular-season title.

"I say that this team's probably played as close to a ceiling as any team that I've had," head coach Bill Self said. "I felt like we had to beat Ohio State back in December to put us in a position to have a quality win to get in the NCAA tournament. That was my mindset. We have gotten so much better. We're like 8 3, lose to Davidson, and you know, no chemistry whatever. I mean just bad.

"But the guys kind of woke up once conference play started. This team has played as close to a ceiling as it possible could. I don't think you can give 110 percent. I think all you can give is 100. And then I think this team has given as close to 100 as any team that I've probably ever coached."

Along the way, Robinson became a first-team All-American and Wooden Award finalist averaging a double-double each night while Tyshaun Taylor, who averages 18.6 points per game, was chosen a third-team All-American. Shot-blocking center Jeff Withey was named the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and the team got solid contributions from Travis Releford, Elijah Johnson, Conner Teahan and Kevin Young.

"Thomas was going to have to play like an All American and Tyshawn was going to have to be as good as any guard around, and those two things have come true," Self said. "And to see how Travis and Elijah and Jeff and Conner and Kevin (have) come a long way. To see how they have come so far individually and then fitting into our schemes is pretty remarkable to me."

"I think this would have been a year if we got to the second weekend, most Kansas faithful would be happy. But I don't think those guys are satisfied or would ever think that. I think they think this is our year and I'm certainly not going to tell them differently."

Saturday night, one of the two teams will see their season come to an end. But what is perhaps most amazing about the squads is that their seasons got this far to begin with.

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