- Jason King
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ST. LOUIS -- One day before they were to meet North Carolina in the Elite Eight, members of the Kansas basketball team got into a heated argument while eating breakfast Saturday at the Hyatt Regency hotel.
In this case, it was a good thing.
The bickering started when point guard Tyshawn Taylor mentioned the words “Final Four.” Before Taylor could finish his thought, teammate Thomas Robinson cut him off in mid-sentence and reminded him not to look too far ahead.
“I just want to get there,” Robinson said. “I just want to take it one step at a time.”
As well as their season has gone, the Jayhawks (30-6) hardly looked like a Final Four-caliber team while squeaking past double-digit seeds Purdue and NC State in the past two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
Satisfying as getting to the Elite Eight may be, Kansas knows its performance will have to dramatically improve if it has any hopes of defeating North Carolina on Sunday in St. Louis. The Tar Heels and Jayhawks are seeded No. 1 and 2, respectively, in the Midwest Region.
“We know we haven’t been playing great lately,” Robinson said. “A lot of people see that as a bad thing, but I see it as a good thing. We’ve been finding a way to win and we still haven’t played close to our abilities.
“The lid will come off [the rim] tomorrow and we’ll play a great game.”
While there certainly aren’t lids hovering over the Edward Jones Dome baskets, something seems to be affecting the Jayhawks' shooting. Kansas went just 37.5 percent from the field in Friday’s 60-57 win over NC State and made just two of its 22 shots from outside the paint.
Bill Self’s squad connected on just 33.9 percent of its attempts in last week’s 63-60 victory against Purdue. Taylor, who has missed 15 of his past 16 shots from 3-point range, was asked if he thought the Jayhawks would be a different team on offense Sunday.
“Honestly, I don’t know how confident I am that it will change,” Taylor said. “But what I am confident in is [our defense]. We’ve been getting stops when we need to. If we continue to do that, whether the ball goes in or not, we can win.”
Forcing midtier teams such as Purdue and NC State into bad shooting nights is one thing, but limiting elite teams such as North Carolina is a whole different beast. The Tar Heels tout as many as seven future first-round draft picks with players such as Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson.
North Carolina’s most irreplaceable part, however, is point guard Kendall Marshall, who is questionable for Sunday’s game with a wrist injury. Marshall didn’t play against No. 13 seed Ohio University on Friday, and the Tar Heels needed overtime to defeat the Bobcats.
Marshall, who had surgery Monday morning, went through a light workout for the first time this week on Saturday. UNC coach Roy Williams said he likely won’t know until just before the game if Marshall can play.
“I’ve got mad respect for his game,” Taylor said. “He’s a great guard. He’s been killing it this year. As a competitor, I want him to play. I want that challenge. If he plays, I think the game would be that much better.”
Marshall ranks second in the nation in assists with 9.7 per game. If he isn’t able to go, North Carolina will likely start seldom-used freshman Stilman White for the second straight game. White averaged just 4 minutes a contest before he was thrust into duty Friday. He played 32 minutes against Ohio and finished with six assists and zero turnovers.
This will be the first time Kansas and North Carolina have played since the 2008 Final Four, when KU jumped out to a 40-12 lead and eventually won 84-66. Two nights later, the Jayhawks defeated Memphis in overtime to claim their first NCAA title since 1988.
“This is going to be one of the funnest games of our careers,” KU center Jeff Withey said. “We’re excited to play against them. We wouldn’t want it any other way than to play North Carolina to get to the Final Four.
“We match up really well with them. It’s going to be a fun game, a physical game, one for the history books.”
Who to watch:
Jeff Withey, Kansas -- The 7-foot center had 10 blocks in Friday’s Sweet 16 victory over NC State. His defense against players such as Tyler Zeller and John Henson will be vital for a KU squad that doesn’t back down in the paint.
Elijah Johnson, Kansas -- The junior guard has been one of KU’s steadiest players the past three weeks. He was the only Jayhawk to make a basket outside of the paint Friday, and his layup off an inbounds pass with less than a minute remaining helped seal KU’s win.
Harrison Barnes, North Carolina -- The Tar Heels’ leading scorer was brutal in North Carolina’s victory over Ohio on Friday. Barnes scored 12 points but made just three of his 16 shots.
Stilman White, North Carolina -- The freshman opened the season as the Tar Heels’ third-string point guard. But injuries to Dexter Strickland and Kendall Marshall forced him to play 32 minutes against Ohio. He had two points and zero turnovers.