The following is a story from Thursday's Journal-World special section, 'Sunflower Power,' which previews the three Kansas schools in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
The stark reality of losing the Morris twins, Tyrel Reed, Brady Morningstar, Josh Selby and Mario Little — and replacing them with no eligible blue-chip recruits — hit Kansas University basketball coach Bill Self hard last summer and into the fall.
“When we started practicing the first of November through Nov. 20, I didn’t think we were very good at all,” said Self, who basically headed into the 2011-12 season with starter Tyshawn Taylor and a batch of reserves off last year’s 35-3 squad.
“When I told them, ‘This is what we’re going to do, and it’s going to work,’ I thought to myself, ‘Is it really?’ The thing is,” Self quickly added, “is they always thought they were good. That’s a great thing to have as a coach.
“They’ve definitely exceeded my thoughts of where we could be.”
He’s pleased as can be that his Thomas Robinson/Tyshawn Taylor-led Jayhawks this week enter the 2012 NCAA Tournament with a batch of accomplishments that rival some of his other powerhouse KU squads.
The 27-6 Jayhawks won the Big 12 regular-season title with an amazing 16-2 record — two games better than runner-up Missouri. KU notched a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, just one slot behind last year’s squad, which won the Big 12 title at 14-2 and ultimately advanced to the Elite Eight.
“I got a lot of confidence in the guys in Maui. That was a pretty good basketball team playing in Maui,” Self said of a squad that followed a season-opening win over Towson in Allen Fieldhouse with wins over Georgetown and UCLA and a loss to Duke in the Maui Invitational. “Beating Ohio State even without (injured Jared) Sullinger (78-67 on Dec. 10 in Allen Fieldhouse) ... that’s a pretty good basketball team.
“The problem is, when we’ve been good, we’ve been real good. When we haven’t been good, it’s been a big drop. I think that’s what happens when you don’t have a lot of depth. Playing five or six guys a majority of minutes, it doesn’t take much for that drop to occur. I do like our guys a lot.”
He was not pleased with his troops following an 80-74 loss to Davidson on Dec. 19 in Sprint Center — a setback that dropped KU’s record to 7-3 overall.
Yet his rotation of Taylor, Robinson, Jeff Withey, Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford, Conner Teahan — and sometimes Kevin Young and Justin Wesley — bonded together after that to win the final three nonconference games, then cruise through the Big 12.
“Losses are OK as long as you learn from them and get better from it. That Davidson loss probably helped us at least for a month,” Self said.
“Once we started playing well (in Big 12),” he added, “I thought, ‘Why can’t we be one of the better teams around?’”
The two losses in Big 12 games — 72-64 on Jan. 28 at Iowa State (after seven league wins) and 74-71 on Feb. 4 at Missouri — were winnable games. KU defeated ISU, 82-73, on Jan. 14 and clipped MU, 87-86, in overtime on Feb. 25 in games in Allen, meaning KU beat every team in the league during this magical season.
“I never dreamed the winner of the league would have two losses,” Self said. “I thought four would tie it, three win it outright. To have two is pretty remarkable. We had a lot of good wins. We did a pretty good job for a team that doesn’t close late. It was a great run, but we’ve received enough pats on the back for winning the league. That’s over. We need to put our focus on trying to make it a special season. It’s a good season. You can’t take that from us. It won’t be special unless we play well from this point forward.”
As far as individual player highlights ...
• National player of the year candidate Robinson averaged a team-leading 17.9 points and 11.8 rebounds a game.
• Cousy Award finalist Taylor averaged 17.3 points with 159 assists against 115 turnovers.
Nobody else enters the NCAA Tournament as a double-digit scorer, though 7-footer Withey is the Big 12’s best shot blocker with 109 in 33 games. He has averaged 9.3 points and 6.2 rebounds, Johnson 9.6 points (56 of 174 threes for 32.2 percent), Releford 8.5 points and Teahan 5.9 points (47 of 132 threes for 35.6 percent).
Of Big 12 Player of the Year Robinson, Self said: “He’s had a fabulous year, been so consistent from a production standpoint. Even when he’s not had his best game, he finds a way to get 15 and 10. You can pencil that in. You know he’ll produce for you. He’s had some monster games and allowed Withey to become a better offensive player.
“The thing is how hard he tries and how hungry he is. He had three lottery picks ahead of him (Morris twins, Cole Aldrich). When his number was called and opportunity knocked, he made the most of it.”
Of floor general Taylor, Self said: “I’ve loved coaching him. He’s had a great career. There have only been three or four other players that have ever put up the numbers he has from his position at our school.
“I’d say he’s unique because I’m not sure I’ve ever coached anybody that tall, that long and that fast. I don’t know if we ever had a player since I’ve been here who played better over a longer period of time than he has.”
As far as how his stars and bit players will play in the NCAAs? Nobody knows. Self is ready to find out.
“When we play right we are pretty good,” he said. “When we get off on our own, really don’t share it or lose our edge a little bit, we get so average,” he said.