After a sluggish first half, Bill Self's Jayhawks charged back to top North Carolina and advance to the Sweet 16. (David E. Klutho/SI)
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Bill Self has had his suspicions about his top-seeded team all season.
The one that after a shocking road loss at TCU last month, Self bluntly described as “the worst team Kansas has ever put on the floor.”
Through the first game and a half of this NCAA tournament, Self was seemingly right.
His lethargic Jayhawks trailed No. 16 seed Western Kentucky at halftime on Friday night and escaped with a forgettable seven-point win. And Sunday in their third-round game against No. 8 seed North Carolina, they were completely unenthused during a first half that left them trailing by nine points.
But just when Kansas was in danger of living up to Self’s damning words, he showed once again why this season has perhaps been one of his best coaching jobs ever.
Even with his leading scorer Ben McLemore pulling another puzzling disappearing act, he somehow got the mercurial Jayhawks to play like a contender for the first time during this NCAA tournament in the second half of their 70-58 victory over the Tar Heels.
“We’re excited,” Self said after the game. Not by how his team had played in essentially two home games, but how it survived. With his Jayhawks nabbing such narrow victories, Self has to know that his team had been fortunate to advance to the Sweet 16 to face fourth-seeded Michigan (28-7) Friday in Arlington, Texas.
During Friday’s win, the Jayhawks failed to make a three-pointer for the first time in 200 straight games. And on Sunday during the first half, they shot 25 percent (7-for-28) from the field, their lowest percentage for a single half in all of their glorious 41 NCAA tournament appearances.
“I wasn’t happy with them,” Self said. “We weren’t ourselves at all in the first half. We were sped up. We played nervous and timid.”
After missing 13 straight three-pointers in this NCAA tournament, Kansas guard Travis Releford finally hit one less than two minutes into the second half. It brought Jayhawks fans to their feet and keyed a 33-12 run that put the game out of reach for good.
“They were phenomenal in the second half,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.
But perhaps the biggest mystery continues to involve McLemore, the freshman shooting guard, who for the fourth straight game hardly looked like a probable lottery pick in June’s NBA draft. Of the 12-of-13 shots that Kansas misfired on in the game’s first eight minutes, he only took one, a missed three-pointer.
After a sequence during the Jayhawks’ poor start, McLemore passed instead of shooting an open baseline jumper, causing Self to yell, “Ben, what are you doing? Don’t pass. Shoot the ball.” He finished 0-for-9 from the field, the first time all season he failed to make a single field goal, with just two points in 24 minutes, only six of which were in the second half.
“Ben labored this weekend,” Self said of McLemore, who entered the game averaging just over 16 points per game. “We’re going to go right back to him. It’s not going to be a situation like that. He’ll get a chance to regroup a little bit. We’ll get him right.”
Self will have to get his entire team right. His team won’t be able to turn it on and off going forward. And despite his best efforts, Self’s suspicions still have to remain and so do those of plenty of others.