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IT SEEMED AS THOUGH SELF HAD YET ANOTHER high-talent, low-mettle team destined for an early March exit when the Jayhawks lost for the third time in seven games, on Feb. 23 at 13-12 Oklahoma State. At a time when the coach had hoped his players would close ranks—in addition to the late-season stumble, both senior forward Darnell Jackson's cousin and senior guard Rodrick Stewart's adopted brother had died on Feb. 20 after being shot in unrelated incidents—they failed to do so. "When's the last time you had a players-only meeting?" Self asked his team after the game. "Have you talked about how you're going to rally Darnell and Rod?" The players shook their heads. "Well," Self replied, "I thought you guys cared."
The seniors organized a private team meal at Jackson's favorite restaurant, Henry T's, where they expressed support for their teammates and allowed each one to air his grievances. "We really laid down in that [ Oklahoma State] game," senior guard Russell Robinson said in the week leading into the Final Four, "and we were pointing the finger and not taking responsibility for our own mistakes." Thanks to the return of senior leadership, Self said in San Antonio, "this has been a totally different team."
Yet nobody would have predicted the no-that's-not-a-misprint score line with 6:48 left in the first half of the Jayhawks' semifinal: Kansas 40, North Carolina 12. While the major theme heading into the game had been Williams's first game against Kansas since he had famously departed Lawrence in 2003, the story instead was the Jayhawks' suffocating defense, which nearly made the proud Tar Heels cry UNCle. "Good defense should beat good offense any day," Self said before the game, and Kansas provided plenty of evidence. The Jayhawks sent waves of double teams at national player of the year Tyler Hansbrough, forced point guard Ty Lawson into uncharacteristic mistakes and slowed North Carolina's vaunted secondary break.
For all that defensive mastery—the Tar Heels shot only 35.8% from the field—it didn't hurt that Kansas hit 53.1% of its shots. And while UNC roared back, cutting the lead to 54-50 midway through the second half, KU finished with a 30-16 run for a comfortable 84-66 victory. The upset of the tournament's overall top seed was a powerful validation of the Jayhawks' contention that they play better on the rare occasions when they're underdogs. Whether that's an admirable trait in a champion is debatable, but Kansas clearly benefited from avoiding the favorite's tag in an unprecedented Final Four that had all the No. 1 seeds. "There was so much pressure on us to get here, but now we've made it and all the pressure's off," Collins said after the North Carolina game.
In that case, no Jayhawk showed more grace under (no) pressure on Saturday than Rush, whose level of aggressiveness is monitored as closely back home as the winter wheat harvests. "Brandon can get comfortable, and I don't think that's the best way he needs to play," said Self. "I think he's the best wing in the country, but my message to him is the same all the time: attack, attack, attack." Asked before the semifinal if he was tired of the questions about his game intensity, Rush said that he didn't mind at all. "I love being questioned about it," he said, "because I think I've got a pretty good answer to it." He certainly did against the Tar Heels, scoring 10 points in the Jayhawks' 25-2 first-half run and finishing with a game-high 25.
WHILE KANSAS FANS WERE PARTYING on the San Antonio Riverwalk at 1 a.m. on the Sunday before the final, the coaching staff (Self, assistants Joe Dooley, Danny Manning and Kurtis Townsend and Ronnie Chalmers, who is the team's director of basketball operations) was assembling in room 2124 at the downtown Hilton for a Memphis game-planning session. In a fitting nod to KU's last national title team, the scouting report for Memphis was prepared by Manning—the Sunflower State legend whose 31 points and 18 rebounds against Oklahoma had led the squad known as Danny and the Miracles to the championship 20 years earlier. After a 15-year NBA career, Manning joined Self's staff in 2003, starting as the director of student-athlete development and working his way up to full-time assistant this season.
How many college basketball greats have had the humility to return to their alma mater and pay their dues under a new regime? Manning shied away from media requests all season, directing the spotlight to the players, but his impact on the team was undeniable. It was Manning's focus on footwork and positioning that helped turn Jackson into one of the nation's most improved frontcourt players this season. And it was Manning's embodiment of past glory that gave the Jayhawks added incentive. "He has a big influence because he has been here before, and he has won it all," said Rush. "He's always remembering the speeches he gave in the big games."
In the wee hours of Sunday morning, though, Manning was just another bleary-eyed assistant breaking down the Memphis tendencies as video clips from the Tigers' NCAA tournament games flashed on the plasma screen in front of the Kansas coaches. "Fast-break points, points in the paint—that's the bottom line," Manning said, noting his biggest concerns about Memphis's hard-driving attack. For his part, Self was floored by the Tigers' ascendant freshman point guard, Derrick Rose, marveling at his quick first step and the way he used his chiseled 6' 3", 190-pound body to overwhelm UCLA's Darren Collison for 25 points in the first semifinal. "When did he get to be such a good shooter?" Self asked, adding that the 5' 11" Collins might have a hard time matching up against Memphis's taller guards despite his competitive desire to do so.
But the Kansas coaches also saw weaknesses they could exploit. Mississippi State had used an effective 2-3 zone to slow the pace and clog the driving lanes in Memphis's hard-fought 77-74 second-round victory. And while Rose and Douglas-Roberts would command plenty of help defense to stop their penetration, Memphis's outside shooters—guards Antonio Anderson, Willie Kemp and Doneal Mack—had been inconsistent from three-point range all season. "We have to make them shoot [outside] shots, cut off the lanes and make it look crowded [inside]," Self said, sounding a lot like Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, whose willingness to let Memphis shoot (and miss) threes had led to the Tigers' only loss of the season before the final.
Yet the late-night session wasn't all about X's and O's. The defense-obsessed Self would occasionally stop and blurt out his continued astonishment over his team's takedown of the Tar Heels. ("We held Carolina nine minutes without a field goal!") The coaches also took a 15-minute break to welcome several former Jayhawks—Scot Pollard, Ryan Robertson, Greg Gurley and T.J. Pugh—who gathered with their girlfriends and wives around Self, the coach holding court on the semifinal win while perched on the countertop of the room's bar. That the alums had all played for Roy Williams was one sign of how Self has won over the fan base.