LAWRENCE — Kansas coach Bill Self would’ve had trouble stacking his team’s schedule any tougher.
The Jayhawks challenged Kentucky, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, in their second game of the year. They played Georgetown and Duke in the Maui Invitational, and decided to invite Ohio State to storied Allen Fieldhouse for an early December showdown.
All of that before they even got to the Big 12 portion of their schedule, and two games each against Missouri, Baylor and Iowa State.
There was a purpose to the madness, and that purpose is now.
Perhaps no other team in the NCAA tournament is as tested as the No. 2 seed Jayhawks, who open pursuit of a sixth national championship against No. 15 seed Detroit on Friday in Omaha, Neb.
“It was a monster schedule for us,” Self conceded. “I think that was very good for us in Big 12 play, because I don’t think we go 16-2 if we hadn’t lost some games to a really tough schedule in the non-conference.”
Yes, the Jayhawks certainly took their lumps.
They lost 75-65 to Kentucky in Madison Square Garden. They fell to the Blue Devils, 68-61, in a thrilling tournament title game in Hawaii. They even lost to Davidson on a neutral floor.
“I think the games that we lost are games that we didn’t play so well ourselves, and we helped teams beat us,” said senior guard Tyshawn Taylor. “Earlier in the season, Kentucky beat us, and Davidson caught us on one of those days where we didn’t play well. Once we came back from the losses, watched tape and had a couple days of practice, I think we learned from our mistakes.”
The Jayhawks had the toughest strength of schedule at one point this season. The most recent ranking released Monday had them tied with Wisconsin for fifth, trailing only Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan from the Big Ten and conference foe Baylor.
Kansas has faced no fewer than a dozen teams that made the NCAA tournament field, including three of the No. 2 seeds and two of the No. 3 seeds. Among the others are No. 12 seeds Long Beach State and South Florida, which the Jayhawks trounced 72-40 early in the season.
The average seeding of the 12 opponents who made the NCAA tournament? Roughly 6.4.
Pretty stout stuff.
“We’re always going to put pressure on ourselves, and if we put the pressure on ourselves to be the best that we can be, then we have a pretty good chance of winning,” Taylor said.
“That pressure is always going to be on us from our coaching staff, and as teammates we are always going to push each other to be better,” he said. “We’re going to enjoy it to the fullest and enjoy the matchups that we have and where we are playing.”
It’s not just this season that has put the Jayhawks through the ringer.
In an era of one-and-done players, Kansas is the rare superpower that has managed to build over the course of several seasons, turning raw talent into an intimidating juggernaut.
Leading scorer Thomas Robinson, one of the favorites for national player of the year, is a junior who spent last season mostly riding the bench. Taylor is a four-year starter, and fellow starters Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and Jeff Withey are all juniors.
Then there’s Connor Teahan, who may have more experience than anybody in the tournament.
The first guy off the bench for the Jayhawks is a fifth-year senior who took the strange route of redshirting before his senior season. That means he’s the only player remaining from the 2008 team that beat Memphis in overtime for the national championship.
“It’s looking like it’s pretty good, but we have to go out there and win and take care of business one game at a time,” Teahan said. “I think we’re looking forward to doing that.”
Self said there are pros and cons of having a veteran team.
Younger teams often play with a certain naivety, the kind of free-flowing freedom that comes with not fully realizing the stakes. They’re less willing to worry about the stresses of the NCAA tournament, and more willing to throw caution to the wind and play with unabashed joy.
Teams that have been around for a while may not have that youthful exuberance, but they have a hardened exterior making them less likely to crack when the pressure mounts.
“I think the advantage is that there is no safety net for Tyshawn or Conner. The next loss is the last game, and that’s the way it is for all seniors across America,” Self said. “There is a point of urgency or a purpose that guys will play with because nobody ever wants it to end.”
Of course, Kansas won’t go into the tournament thinking about it ending.
That would be a rookie mistake.
“You go into it thinking, ‘We’re going to advance,’” Self said. “When you say, ‘I don’t want it to end,’ that’s when it puts a negative connotation on it, that losing is part of the equation. Our talk will be, ‘Hey, looking forward to playing again and can’t wait to get to the game.’”