Confident Taylor holds key to KU hopes with matchup against Craft
NEW ORLEANS -- First up at the dais, then back in the locker room, one reporter after another wanted to know Tyshawn Taylor's thoughts on his personal adversary in Saturday's Final Four game, Ohio State point guard/defensive fiend Aaron Craft.
"Is all the hype deserved?" someone asked.
This is the part in your typical NCAA tournament scrum where the player artfully avoids the bait and lavishes his opponent with praise, peppering in the requisite dose of clichés. But that wouldn't be Tyshawn Taylor.
"As many questions I'm answering about how good he is on defense -- he must be. That's all I'm talking about" said Kansas' bubbly and ever-candid senior point guard. Earlier, told of an Ohio State player's observation that Craft was the superior defender, Taylor replied: "He's great. I'm just way too confident in my abilities to give him that much credit. I guess I'll have to see for myself."
For most, the heavyweight matchup-within-the matchup Saturday will be the battle of All-American big men, Kansas' Thomas Robinson and Ohio State's Jared Sullinger. But the one that may actually dictate the outcome is that of point guards Taylor and Craft.
It certainly did the first time the teams met.
In Kansas' 78-67 win over the Buckeyes on Dec. 10 -- a game that Sullinger missed with back spasms -- Taylor dished out a season-high 13 assists.
"He was the catalyst that first game, dishing out to players that were making plays," said Craft, who made 4 of 11 shots and fouled out. "He can do some things other people can't do."
It was far from a perfect night for Taylor, however. As often happens to those that go up against Craft, the Kansas guard -- who averages 17.3 points per game -- had seven turnovers and finished with just nine points on 3-of-9 shooting. There was a caveat, however: Taylor was playing with a torn meniscus that required surgery the next morning. He felt limited by a cumbersome knee brace.
"From December 10th to now, I think I'm a completely different player," he said. "I'm looking forward to the challenge even more so than I was before -- and I still feel like I played a pretty solid game."
During the Jayhawks' run to the Final Four -- much like throughout his career -- the New Jersey native has been alternately fantastic and frustrating. In Kansas' Elite Eight victory over No. 1 seed North Carolina, he scored a team-high 22 points, grabbed six rebounds, dished five assists and notched five steals. He also, however, shot 0-of-5 from three-point range -- at one point stopping and popping on a 1-against-3 fast break with the score still tight -- to sink to 0-of-17 for the tourney.
He brushes off the slump just like he's brushed off four years of criticism from frustrated Jayhawks fans.
"It's not like I'm a three-point specialist. I can do other things to make plays and be effective," said Taylor. "I guess I shoot a lot of them, or have been anyway. I haven't been making many, but I'm gonna shoot 'em if I'm open, and if I miss, I'm not going to hang my head. I'm gonna shoot the next one, too."
This is the player that drove Bill Self nuts for much of his career, but whom the Kansas coach has come to vehemently embrace. A top 100 recruit from Jersey prep power St. Anthony (coached by the legendary Bob Hurley), Taylor started all but two games as a freshman in 2008-09, averaging 9.7 points, and figured to blossom into a bona fide star soon enough.
But then, in September 2009, Taylor was at the center of a bizarre on-campus fight between Jayhawks football and basketball players, dislocating his thumb. His scoring dipped the next year, with Self moving him in and out of the lineup, and at one point a frustrated Taylor intimated on Facebook he might transfer. He was suspended for two games as a junior, and for the Jayhawks' two preseason exhibition games this year.
You'd never know any of that the way Self speaks of him now.
"I really like this kid," Self said of Taylor last week. "I think he's been about as big a treat to coach as anybody I've ever had. And I've always been fond of guys that have to go through some stuff to get where they eventually end up and he's had to go through some stuff. He's been a treat to be around.
"He's emerged as one of the better leaders we have had since I've been here."
Spend any amount of time around the Jayhawks and you'll see what he means. Robinson, a unanimous first-team AP All-American, may be their biggest star, but he's a year younger than Taylor and far more introverted. Taylor is the undisputed voice of the locker room, humorous but passionate. After spending three years in the shadows of stars like Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich and Marcus and Markeiff Morris, he stepped up this year and improved his scoring average from 9.3 to 17.3 while maintaining his same general level of assists (4.8).
"It was an unspoken thing I was going to become the leader of this team," he said. "Because I'd been there the longest, guys just automatically looked up to me to lead them. I've never really had to be in the position to lead, even though I was a point guard.
"I took that as a challenge, and when I take challenges on, I seem to be pretty successful with it for the most part."
Taylor's latest challenge comes Saturday in his reunion against Craft -- and if he's not successful, it will be his last at the collegiate level.
Taylor may well be a "completely different player" than he was three months ago, but the Ohio State sophomore has been at his finest in the tournament. He tied a season-high with six steals in the Sweet 16 against Cincinnati and frustrated Syracuse's guards throughout the Buckeyes' Elite Eight win. While known primarily for his on-the-ball pressure, he's equally effective disrupting passing lanes and slowing down opposing fast breaks.
Craft already plays with a marked intensity, but teammates figure he'll be particularly motivated in light of Taylor's 13-assist outing in their last meeting.
"Craft is going to make it as difficult as he can," said Ohio State guard William Buford. "Anytime somebody does a decent job against Aaron, he always watches extra film on it, just to know him even more before we play him [again], just to make it even more difficult for them."
Taylor seemed undaunted. As usual.
"I've played against him, I've watched a lot on tape of him," he said. "I don't think I'll change anything I do."
If so, expect a mix of dynamic playmaking and questionable shot selection. Whether the Jayhawks win or lose may determine whether Taylor, so maddening to so many for so much of his career, leaves behind a more triumphant legacy.