ST. LOUIS - His team had just advanced to the Elite Eight for the second consecutive season, but shortly after Kansas’ 60-57 victory over NC State on Friday, a reporter asked Bill Self if the Jayhawks were living “on borrowed time.”
Inside the KU locker room, Thomas Robinson said he had a sour taste in his mouth. Instead of talking about his 10 blocks (just one shy of Shaq's NCAA tourney record), Jeff Withey answered questions about his teammates’ inability to make outside shots. As fans spilled into the St. Louis streets to celebrate, Elijah Johnson slumped in an Edwards Jones Dome chair and stared at the ground.
“We’ve got to do something,” Johnson said. “The way we’re playing ... we’ve got to fix it.”
Winning isn’t supposed to feel like this -- and at most schools, it doesn’t.
Things, however, are different at Kansas, where, fair or not, seasons aren’t viewed as a success unless the team reaches the Final Four. The Jayhawks have the talent to get there, but they realize they won’t unless their performance takes a dramatic turn in Sunday’s tilt with North Carolina.
“I don’t know what the problem is,” guard Conner Teahan said. “We’re not playing our best basketball.”
Less than a week after shooting just 33.9 percent in a 63-60 victory over Purdue, Kansas made just 37.5 percent of its shots Friday against an 11th-seeded NC State squad that barely made the NCAA tournament.
KU outscored the Wolfpack 44-22 down low, but once they stepped away from the blocks, the Jayhawks couldn’t have hit sand if they fell off a camel. Kansas made just two of its 22 shots outside the paint, a stat that still had Self and his players baffled nearly an hour after the final horn.
“We couldn’t throw it in the ocean,” Self said. “We couldn’t make free throws, all those things. If anything we’ll spin this into a positive. Two shots outside the paint and we still won? That’s unbelievable.”
Kansas missed 13 of its 14 attempts from 3-point range and was just 11-of-20 from the foul stripe. Point guard Tyshawn Taylor, who led KU in scoring during Big 12 play, was particularly brutal with a 2-of-14 performance.
Taylor and Robinson both missed the front end of one-and-one opportunities that would’ve sealed the victory in the game’s final minute.
“The lid just hasn’t come off [the rim] yet,” Self said. “But it’s going to come off. We’re going to start making shots.”
Teahan even joked about the situation.
“Maybe,” Teahan said, “we’ve just been stockpiling all of our shots for Sunday.”
Disappointing as they’ve been on offense, these Jayhawks have hardly resembled the KU teams of the past that played scared and tightened up against inferior teams in the NCAA tournament. No one can question the Jayhawks’ effort or toughness in any of their first three games.
Especially on the defensive end.
NC State connected on just 28.4 percent of its field goal attempts Friday. Kansas may have scored just two baskets in the final 7 minutes, 10 seconds, but it also made a handful of key defensive stops in the game’s waning moments to thwart NC State’s comeback attempt.
Kansas led by as many as 10 points in the second half.
“You can say what you want about our offense,” Robinson said. “But defensively, we’ve been great. When nobody scores, we can’t lose.”
The Jayhawks, however, know they’re in for a much tougher test against North Carolina on Sunday. The Tar Heels, 32-5, needed overtime to defeat No. 13 Ohio on Friday, but they played without All-American guard Kendall Marshall, who missed the game with an injured wrist.
It has yet to be determined if Marshall, who averages 9.7 assists, will play against Kansas. The Jayhawks hope he does.
“We want their best shot,” Teahan said.
Even if Marshall doesn’t play, North Carolina will be the best opponent Kansas has played all season other than Kentucky. Forwards John Henson, Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes and James Michael McAdoo are all projected as NBA lottery picks. Sharpshooter Reggie Bullock, who made five 3s on Friday, is also a potential first-rounder.
Self said the Tar Heels were “the best rebounding team in college basketball.”
As impressed as he is with the Tar Heels, Self is more concerned with making sure his own team is ready.
Even though Kansas wasn’t as efficient as Self would’ve liked on Friday, he said he wasn’t leaving the Edward Jones Dome discouraged. Instead he focused on the bigger picture. Five months ago, analysts predicted this year’s team would be Self’s worst at Kansas. The Jayhawks lost four starters from a 35-win squad and appeared to be destined for a rebuilding year.
Yet here the Jayhawks are -- 30-6, Big 12 champions for the eighth straight season and in the Elite Eight for the second consecutive year.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Self said. “If you’d have told us before the season that we’d have a chance on Sunday afternoon to play to go to the Final Four, we would’ve all said, 'Wow!' That’s how I feel. Considering what we lost and how far this team has come ... we’re one game away.”
Now if only those shots would start falling.
“Every team in the country, I don’t care who it is, plays their best ball at least one game every year,” Johnson said. “We haven’t yet, but I think it’s going to happen.
“The best has yet to come.”