NEW ORLEANS — The season began with coach Bill Self telling Kansas faithful to chill out. It ended with the Jayhawks one game — really, one late run — from winning a national championship.
At a school where expectations are often unrealistic, where anything less than a trip to the Final Four is considered just another season, a scrappy team of overachievers led by Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor accomplished more than just about anyone thought possible.
Kansas may have lost to mighty Kentucky in the final game of the season. The Jayhawks feel as though they won just by getting there.
“From start to finish, there’s been no team I’ve been around improved this much,” Self said in the moments following the 67-59 loss at the Superdome. “There’s been no team I’ve been around that competed this hard, there’s been no team I’ve been around that was able to take whatever situation dealt them and respond to it favorably.
“It’s a pretty proud moment,” Self said, “to be able to coach a team like this and a group of individuals like this.”
Kansas was anointed the co-favorites to win the Big 12 for the eighth consecutive year, almost by default. But few people expected them to go 16-2 in one of the nation’s toughest leagues.
That’s why Self was quick to temper expectations back in October, when Allen Fieldhouse filled for Late Night at the Phog. This wasn’t a team of NBA draft picks and budding superstars, like the 2008 national title team. This wasn’t even as talented a team as the last couple seasons.
Those ended with early outs in the NCAA tournament.
But the bruising Robinson grew from role player into one of the nation’s premier interior presences. The first unanimous first-team All-American since Blake Griffin, Robinson piled up his 27th double-double against Kentucky, finishing with 18 points and 17 rebounds in what is likely to be his final college game. Most expect Robinson to declare soon for the NBA draft.
Taylor finally emerged as the beloved guard that Kansas fans had waited to see. Three years of ups and downs laid the foundation for a season of mostly ups.
The senior from Hoboken, N.J., had 19 points in his final game wearing crimson and blue.
Everyone else on the team added a strange mixture that seemed to work. Elijah Johnson showed flashes of becoming a star next season, while Travis Releford hung his hat on defense. Jeff Withey established himself as one of the nation’s best shot-blockers, and Conner Teahan — the fifth-year senior and part of that 2008 team — realized his outside shooting could come in handy.
Together they rolled through the Big 12 schedule, losing only to Missouri and Iowa State along the way, before falling in the conference tournament.
That defeat only served to heighten the hunger for a team with an unmatched will to win.
Down and out against Purdue early in the NCAA tournament, Kansas rallied against hot-shooting Robbie Hummel. Trailing against North Carolina State, the Jayhawks eventually put their foot down. And in crunch time against North Carolina, they came through with aplomb.
“Anything we did in the tournament, especially with the expectations we had coming into the season — all season we’ve been coming back from, you know?” Robinson said.
They just couldn’t come back against a team brimming with future NBA stars.
After digging an 18-point hole in the first half Monday night, Kansas expended most of its energy just trying to catch up. A team that walked a tightrope all the way to the national title game managed to cut the deficit to five, but that was as close as it got.
Kentucky was too good. The hole was finally too deep.
“We knew coming in that we had been in situations like that before,” said Releford, a junior guard from Kansas City, Mo. “We played like that all year. We figured we’d come out in the second half and run how we did. It just wasn’t good enough.”
Taylor had a stunned look on his face after the game, almost as if he couldn’t believe his career had finally come to an end. Robinson also gave off the feeling that the next time he laced up his sneakers would be for some NBA team that needed someone to battle in the post.
The team’s two top scorers are likely gone, but just about everyone else will be back.
Their leadership roles will likely fall to Johnson, whose clutch shooting in the tournament was perhaps the biggest reason Kansas made it to the final weekend. Withey must also carry a bigger burden, particularly after his still-budding offensive game was shut down by the Wildcats.
Releford will be back, and so will Kevin Young, a junior transfer who gave Self unbridled energy off the bunch. Freshman guard Naadir Tharpe also played some meaningful minutes.
Then there’s the recruiting class that Self has already lined up.
It’s headlined by Perry Ellis, a McDonald’s All-American and one of the most accomplished prep players in state history. Four-star prospect Andrew White is expected on campus along with a few other prospects, joining two players who spent all season watching from the bench.
Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor were ruled partial qualifiers this season. They were able to practice with the team the second semester and will be ahead of the game come fall.
Altogether, expectations will be about the same as usual for the Jayhawks next season.
The only difference is they won’t be such a long shot.
“No one at the beginning of the season said we could win a national championship,” Johnson said, “and to see us grow that much and to be a part of it, it felt go so good be a part of the ride.”