How to explain KU? Don't even try
NEW ORLEANS -- As fans from the upper deck littered the court with seat cushions, this Final Four's version of confetti, Bill Self and Thomas Robinson stood amid the din and chaos, waiting to do their postgame TV interview.
Self, a grin as wide as a mouth can stretch spreading across his face, turned briefly and looked at Robinson, shook his head and mouthed, "Wow."
Perhaps the only people more shocked than Jared Sullinger, who sat jersey over his head in the middle of the court after the buzzer solidified Kansas' 64-62 win over Ohio State were the Jayhawks.
Find a locker room, any locker room in any sport, and you will find athletes lined up to insist they knew they could and would succeed and achieve, no matter how improbable the odds or ragtag the roster.
Not at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Ten minutes after Kansas landed itself in a national championship game against Kentucky, there was as much stupefied disbelief as unfiltered joy filling the steamy Jayhawk locker room.
"I'm shocked. I never thought we'd be playing for a national championship,'' Robinson said. "The last two teams I've been on, they were probably the best teams I've ever been part of. I never thought I'd be on a team like that again, but those teams never got where we are.''
It's almost blasphemous to put the words "Kansas" and "surprise" in to the same sentence. Lawrence is, after all, where the good Dr. Naismith chose to take his newfangled game and clever mind. They've done a little bit since then, too, winning three national titles and assuming a permanent position among basketball royalty.
The last two teams I've been on, they were probably the best teams I've ever been part of. I never thought I'd be on a team like that again, but those teams never got where we are.
--Kansas forward Thomas Robinson
Kansas in the national title game isn't quite like, say, Binghamton in the national title game.
Yet Robinson's sheer wonder is perfectly understandable. Last year's Kansas team boasted the Morris twins, Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar and lost in the regional finals to Virginia Commonwealth. Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins couldn't get past Northern Iowa in the second round.
This motley crew consists of a player who averaged 14 minutes a game a year ago (Robinson), an enigmatic point guard who has an engraved plate on his doghouse (Tyshawn Taylor) and a bunch of former role players pressed into major service.
So uncertain and unsettled was the future of this team that in June, when Robinson and Taylor sat down to talk about what would be their team, it was more sermon and pep talk than analytical assessment.
"I remember that because we talked about [how] we're going to make the most of this, how we weren't going to be like, 'Dang I wish we didn't come back,''' Taylor said. "We wanted to make sure we had the right attitude.''
And that was before the bottom fell out in October, when would-be freshmen Ben McLemore and Jamari Taylor were declared partial qualifiers, unable to play this season.
"Honestly, I was just hoping we could make a run in the Big 12 season and hopefully make the NCAA tournament,'' Robinson said.
But Kansas is here in the national title game because the Jayhawks beat Ohio State just as they've won games all season.
"I have no idea how we won,'' Robinson said. "I really don't know.''
That really has been the Jayhawk theme this season, inexplicably stealing success from the jaws of sure failure, their schedule littered with improbable comebacks that defy explanation.
Sullinger is not the first player to be dumbstruck by the Kansas steamroller.
Missouri is still trying to figure out where its 19-point lead went and Robbie Hummel has no idea how Kansas ended his career.
"It's weird how it's like that for us,'' Taylor said. "I don't know, it's like when we get down it somehow makes our offense better, like we cherish the ball more or something.''
This game was quintessential KU, circa 2012. The Jayhawks led 2-0 and not again until 2:48 remained in the game. In between, Ohio State stretched its advantage to as many as 13 and a solid nine at the break.
Self mixed a little preaching with a little screaming at the break, striking the perfect balance for his team.
"There's no 13-point plays,'' Self said. "You have to grind it, get one stop at a time.''
This was certainly that, a grind. It made up for in pure entertainment what it lacked in aesthetics, a body brawl where every loose ball was fought for to the death.
Which is what most folks expected, what with Sullinger and Robinson on the court.
Only this big-man battle wasn't the advertised version.
The book on Sullinger is that long and lankier big men bother the sophomore.
Enter Jeff Withey.
The senior shouldered the burden of Sullinger, frustrating him into 5-of-19 shooting from the floor and a critical stretch in which Sullinger spent more time gesturing for calls than trying to score.
His European soccer player interpretation served only to psych himself out of the game. At the most critical point of the game, Sullinger never scored and was pestered, bothered and blocked into submission by Withey, who would finish with just four points but an Anthony Davis-esque seven blocks.
"He was just playing hard,'' Sullinger said. "Seemed like he stepped up his defensive intensity. We had a chance to control the game and we didn't. They came out and played hard in the second half. They just wanted it more, it seemed like.''
This is, after all, a Kansas team that somehow has managed to don a Jayhawk uniform, yet play with the unbridled freedom and joy of no pressure.
When Travis Releford hit two free throws to put the Jayhawks ahead 56-55, the game was long from over but you could almost sense the last bit of air coming out of Ohio State's sails.
As soon as Sullinger announced his return for his sophomore season, the bull's-eye lodged itself on the back of Ohio State's uniforms. It's a burden to tote, one that a typical Kansas team would understand.
But this is no typical Kansas team. This was the one that wasn't supposed to win the Big 12.
Of course, it did.
This is the one that was actually supposed to lose early in the NCAA tournament.
Of course, it didn't.
"It's been a blur of a season," Robinson said, mystified. "I can't even remember the last two games. I'm not sure I remember this one.
But I do know we've surprised a few people.''
MORE MEN'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL HEADLINES
- Sources: Baylor, Buffs lead 8-team tipoff event
- Green Bay coach to keep job after investigation
- DePaul grants Kirk permission to seek transfer
- Coach K calls Team USA 'ultimate honor'