ST. LOUIS -- The key to understanding this 2011-12 Kansas team is simple, once you wrap your brain around it. Kansas, you see, is not Kansas.
Kansas is Butler.
Makes no sense, right? But that's what Kansas is. That's how Kansas wins. That's why Kansas wins. Unlike every Kansas team I've ever laid eyes on, this Kansas team doesn't bludgeon you with talent. It has its share, don't get me wrong, starting with Thomas Robinson. He's a monster. He's a top 10 NBA draft pick.
But the rest of the roster? It's nice. Nice talent. Nice kids. Nice. Like Butler.
But when the game ends and the final scores are tallied, Kansas typically has more points than the other team. That has been the case 31 times in 37 games this season, most recently -- most importantly -- Sunday in the Midwest Regional final when the final score showed Kansas with more points than North Carolina, 80-67.
The game was a lot closer than that, but then, most Kansas games are close. The Jayhawks beat 15th-seeded Detroit in their first NCAA tournament game by 15, a game that was closer than that. They beat Purdue in the next round by three. They beat North Carolina State in the Sweet 16 by three. Purdue and N.C. State had shots at the buzzer to force overtime, too. Kansas wins games but doesn't make it easy, a bizarre criticism that has made its way to Kansas coach Bill Self.
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I'm going to quote Self in a minute, but first you need to understand why. As Kansas was pulling away from North Carolina in the final two minutes on Sunday, I leaned over to colleague Brett McMurphy and told him what I would be writing, that Kansas is Butler. McMurphy smiled, said he had a quote from Self on that very topic. Turns out, at some point after the N.C. State game, Self told McMurphy that he's tired of hearing how Kansas isn't blowing anyone out.
"Butler won a lot of close games last year," Self said. "They made it all the way to the national championship game like that, and nobody had a problem with it."
Nor should anyone have a problem with this Kansas team. A problem? Shoot, Kansas folks should be in love with this team, because it has overachieved from Day One. The Jayhawks have overachieved by winning 31 games this season, overachieved by going 16-2 in the Big 12, overachieved by reaching the Final Four.
Kansas would have no business getting past Ohio State in the Final Four, but it could happen. Hell, it already did happen. Kansas defeated Ohio State 78-67 on Dec. 10, although Ohio State was playing without injured Jared Sullinger. Sullinger is healthy now, which means Kansas will have no business winning. But who would bet against the Jayhawks at this point in the season? It would have been like betting against Butler in either of the last two seasons -- Butler also had one top 10 draft pick, Gordon Hayward -- when the Bulldogs reached back-to-back national title games.
Kansas is this year's Butler: It knows how to win. These players learned through experience, from hanging around the more typical Kansas teams of years past -- led by NBA draft pick after NBA draft pick, guys like Cole Aldrich, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Xavier Henry and Josh Selby. Most of the regulars on this team played with most of those five current NBA players, because this Kansas team is old. Its seven-player rotation has three seniors and four juniors. Who does that sound like? Not Kansas. It sounds like Butler, or George Mason, or Virginia Commonwealth.
This Kansas team is older, even, than it seems. Jeff Withey, Travis Releford and Kevin Young are redshirt juniors, and Conner Teahan is a redshirt senior. Any idea how many of those four guys will play in the NBA? One, at most. Withey has a chance, but he'd better put on 30 pounds of muscle in the next year.
As for this year, that NBA stuff doesn't matter. Not to this team, because it's not winning with NBA talent. It doesn't just walk onto the court and overwhelm its opponents with talent, and you know what? Maybe that's why this Kansas team didn't do what so many Kansas teams have done in recent years, and lose in the NCAA tournament to a less-talented opponent like Bucknell or Bradley or Northern Iowa.
"Maybe the problem we've had in the past is we had so much talent, we just thought we could show up, and the game's over -- the other team will fold or something," Teahan said. "This year's team has so much respect for our opponents. We know we have to try as hard as we can, listen to Coach, give in to his schemes."
Kansas did what Self wanted against North Carolina, pounding the ball inside to Robinson and refusing to take the 3-pointers that UNC was happy to offer. The Jayhawks took just 14 shots from behind the arc, below its averages for the regular season (17 per game) and NCAA tournament (18). As for Robinson, he nearly reached his regular-season average for shots (12.8) in the first half alone (11). Robinson finished with 18 points and nine rebounds, the 7-foot Withey had 15 points and eight rebounds, and Young grabbed eight rebounds in 18 minutes.
Tyshawn Taylor led all scorers with 22 points Sunday, but he won't focus on that number. He'll like the fact that Kansas buckled down in the second half -- after allowing North Carolina to hit 12 of its first 14 shots of the game, and to shoot 63.6 percent overall in the first half -- to hold the Tar Heels to 22.6-percent shooting in the final 20 minutes. Kansas had most of its nine steals and all of its three blocks in the second half. Outrebounded North Carolina by five in the second half, too.
Those are gritty stats. Butler stats. Not Kansas stats -- well, not Kansas stats from the past. Definitely Kansas stats of the present.
"Past teams," Taylor said, "we just had so many weapons that could score from so many different spots. If we weren't all the way in tune defensively, we could cover that up by making some shots. And we knew at the beginning of the year that it wouldn't be the same."
Only the winning has stayed the same. Everything else is a detail -- and nobody is doing details better than this Kansas team.