LAWRENCE — The word filtered out from an email from a Kansas official that the Jayhawks’ bus, at least according to their GPS system, would arrive back in Lawrence at shortly after midnight.
Kansas had just beat North Carolina in the Midwest Regional finals Sunday night, punching its ticket to the Final Four, and Tyshawn Taylor and the rest of his teammates were tired. Exhausted. And a five-hour ride back from St. Louis would finally give them a chance to rest.
Good thing, too.
When they walked into Allen Fieldhouse to unload their gear, they were greeted by thousands of students and fans eager to show their appreciation in the most fitting way possible.
“Wow,” Taylor said while emerging from the tunnel, the same one that he took to the court for all those home games. “I appreciate our fans. They’re always with us.”
No matter the highs or lows.
Taylor has put them through plenty of both.
The senior guard from Hoboken, N.J., may be the most polarizing figure to wear the crimson and blue. Few players have played in as many games, let alone won as many. Few have made more big shots at key moments to send their team to conference championships and NCAA tournament victories. Few players have had the same gift for gab.
But few players have also given coach Bill Self so many sleepless nights. Or all those Kansas faithful reason to question their unwavering allegiance.
“I’ve always liked Ty. I’ve always loved him as a player. No question,” Self said. “I have always liked him as a guy. If I was in college, I would want to hang with Ty. He’s a cool kid.”
To hang with, sure. To coach?
He was suspended last year for two games for violating team rules. He was suspended again for the Jayhawks’ exhibition games this season. There was also a much-publicized brawl between players on the Kansas football and basketball team back in 2009, and Taylor was involved.
“Ty’s been a guy that has gotten in his own way some. He’s put himself in a position for a large part of his career where he probably didn’t know that I liked him as much as I do,” Self said. “And now without question I think he knows that I really like him.”
Perhaps part of the reason is that Self and Taylor have come to understand each other over four rollercoaster years in Lawrence. They’ve built the kind of relationship between elite player and tough-love coach that has become a rarity in the era of one-and-done superstars.
Self has come to appreciate everything Taylor went through as a child, serving as the father figure to his two sisters growing up. He never complained about picking them up from school when he was just 10 years old, when someone else should have been taking charge.
Taylor, likewise, has come to appreciate that Self stuck by him through thick and thin.
It would have been easy for a coach with a national championship on his resume — along with a record eight straight Big 12 titles — to give up on a troublesome player. Self didn’t have the pressure to win a title that followed Roy Williams from Kansas to North Carolina, so no one would have begrudged him for cutting ties with Taylor when he became too much to handle.
The thought never seemed to cross his mind.
“He’s been about as big a treat to coach as anybody I’ve ever had,” Self said. “And I’ve always been fond of guys that have to go through some stuff to get where they eventually end up, and he’s had to go through some stuff.”
The peaks and valleys of Taylor’s career mirrored those of his final season.
There was that hot stretch where he scored at least 20 points three consecutive games, one of them against Elite Eight participant Baylor. There was also that miserable outing against Davidson back in December, which left the Jayhawks at 7-3 and wondering what had gone wrong.
It was Taylor who, like any good point guard, provided leadership to weather the storm.
When his shot went missing in the NCAA tournament — he’s 0 for 17 from beyond the 3-point arc so far — he’s found other ways to contribute. On a 2-for-12 shooting night against N.C. State in the regional semifinals, he managed a career best 10 rebounds and piled up five assists.
Against mighty North Carolina with a trip to the Final Four on the line, Taylor scored 22 points with six rebounds, five assists and only three turnovers.
Afterward, he raised his arms in triumph and headed over to the most densely packed area of Kansas fans inside the Edward Jones Dome, directly across from the Jayhawks’ bench.
He applauded them as they applauded him, and then shook his fist in victory — for the game, for his career, for absorbing all the bumps along the road.
“He’s been a treat to be around,” Self said, “and he’s emerged as one of the better leaders we have had since I’ve been here. I really like this kid.”