After the final buzzer, Thomas Robinson, Kansas' All-America forward, dropped to his knees in disappointment on the temporary wooden floor in the middle of the Superdome. He was oblivious to the confetti fired from cannons over his head and nearby as Kentucky players celebrated the school's eighth national championship and coach John Calipari's first. Teammates Tyshawn Taylor and Kevin Young pulled Robinson to his feet and walked him into the handshake line.
The year was supposed to belong to others, but Kansas made it to the final game. The night was supposed to belong to another team, yet Kansas nearly stole the national championship from Kentucky. The Jayhawks trailed by 18 points just before halftime and by 10 points with only 2:50 left but nearly pulled off a miracle in a building where so many strange things have happened (See: Fred Brown, Chris Webber) before falling short. The preparation began nearly 48 hours earlier, just after Kansas's win over Ohio State on Saturday night. Had the Jayhawks won, the words that follow would have been part of a
It was a quarter past one on Sunday morning in New Orleans, when Kansas coach Bill Self walked into a third-floor conference room at the J.W. Marriott and took his place at the head of a table, facing a TV monitor. Fresh from a stop at an upstairs suite to visit with more than 20 invited friends from his school days at Edmond (Okla.) High and at Oklahoma State, Self wore a brown Polo T-shirt and jeans and carried a mostly drained bottle of Miller Lite. Outside, delirious Kansas fans clogged the sidewalks along narrow Common Street, celebrating a 64-62 semifinal win in which the Jayhawks came from 13 down to beat Ohio State.
To Self's left was Kansas director of basketball operations Barry Hinson, assistant coach Joe Dooley and assistant director of operations Brennan Bechard; to his right, an empty chair awaiting lame duck assistant Danny Manning (who was hired last Thursday to be the head coach at Tulsa) and assistant Kurtis Townsend. Glasses and mugs were turned upside down on the table, next to a cluster of unopened Coke and Diet Coke cans. Townsend picked at a plate of chips and salsa, Hinson nibbled on a King Cone. Self had sent his players to their rooms. "I told them Bourbon Street was in the locker room tonight," he said. "That's as close as they're going to get to it. Unless they've got some sheets they can tie together and drop them from the 14th floor, they're not going anywhere."
Soon the monitor came to life, and video coordinator Brennan Bechard cued up the Jayhawks' 75-65 loss to Kentucky at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15. This film session marked the beginning of the preparation for an unexpected appearance in the national championship game, but in another sense, it was also the end of a wildly unlikely journey that started after another game in another gym more than a year ago.
On March 27, 2011, the Jayhawks played Virginia Commonwealth in San Antonio for a spot in the Final Four and a small piece of redemption. After winning the national title in 2008, they bowed out the next year in the Sweet 16 to eventual runner-up Michigan State. In 2010 elimination had been more bitter; as the No. 1 overall seed, Kansas fell to a No. 9 seed, Northern Iowa, in the round of 32, a defeat that called to mind flameouts to a No. 14 seed (Bucknell, 2005) and a No. 13 (Bradley '06). Despite the '08 championship, a reputation for tournament futility lingered.
And then 11th-seeded VCU and coach Shaka Smart took out the Jayhawks last March. The loss ended the careers of seniors Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar, while twin junior forwards Marcus and Markieff Morris soon declared for the NBA draft, along with one-and-done freshman guard Josh Selby. The roster was gutted, and in the belly of the Alamodome, so were the Jayhawks. "For about 20 minutes, nobody said a word," says 6-foot-3 point guard Tyshawn Taylor, who played 33 minutes that night and was the only returning starter this year. "Then Coach finally stood up and said, 'I just feel sorry for our seniors.' "
Robinson says, "I remember me and the twins, we had three lockers together. We all put towels over our heads. I can still hear Tyrel crying."
Through the silence, guard Elijah Johnson heard a sound in the hallway outside the locker room, a VCU player in full throat. "He was yelling, 'We shocked the world!' " says Johnson. "Took my breath away to hear that. It stayed with me for a long time."
Kansas, of course, is one of those programs where rebuilding is never an option. "Expectations do not change," says Self, who did have several intriguing players heading into this year. Robinson had grown into a potent inside force near the end of 2010-11, and help had seemingly arrived with freshman Ben McLemore, a 6-5 guard, and Jamari Traylor and Braeden Anderson, both 6-8 forwards. Those three, however, were ruled academically ineligible, although McLemore and Taylor were allowed to accept athletic scholarships and enroll at Lawrence, and to participate in practices in the second semester. (Anderson ended up at Fresno State.)
What remained was a seven-man rotation composed entirely of juniors and seniors. Yet only Taylor had averaged more than 15 minutes for the Jayhawks in any previous season. "They weren't age immature," says Self. "But they were experience immature."
They would need stellar work from the 6-10 Robinson, who had come to Lawrence from Washington, D.C., by way of Brewster Academy, a prep school in Wolfeboro, N.H., and who as a sophomore had faced more tragedy than many people endure in a lifetime. In December 2010, Robinson's maternal grandmother, Shirley Gladys White, passed away. His maternal grandfather, Willatant Austin Sr., died on Jan. 16, 2011. Five days later his mother, Lisa Robinson, who raised Thomas and his seven-year-old sister, Jayla, died at age 43 of a brain aneurysm. The team gathered in Robinson's room at the Jayhawk Towers dormitory. Self would call it, "The saddest thing I've ever seen in my life."
During that season Robinson had become exceptionally close to the Morris twins. "They're like my brothers," he says. Their mother, Angel Morris, whom Robinson calls Ms. Angel, became like a surrogate parent. Robinson first endured, and then became more committed and more tough, continuing to transform a skinny body (215 pounds as a freshman) into a powerful one (243 now) in the weight room. "My freshman year [center] Cole [Aldridge] and the twins just had their way with me every day," says Robinson. "I was soft. And nobody likes getting called soft."
Helping Robinson, a first-team All-America who averaged a double-double this season, was the 7-foot, 235-pound Withey, a former high school volleyball player from San Diego who had transferred from Arizona in the middle of 2009-10 but had played just 207 minutes for the Jayhawks. He became the team's surprise performer, compensating for occasional offensive awkwardness with a defensive presence that his teammates had seen in practice for two seasons. "We always thought that he was going to be able to alter shots and protect the rim," says fifth-year guard Conner Teahan. Early in the second half of the win over Ohio State, Withey rejected 6-9 All-America Jared Sullinger three times in two consecutive possessions. In the final, it was Withey who was given the responsibility of defending Kentucky freshman and consensus player of the year Anthony Davis.
As the only starter with significant game experience, Taylor had to hold the pieces together. It was an important task for a player who had twice been suspended for violations that he declined to specify but calls "silly," one of which caused him to sit out the first exhibition game this season. But Taylor was weaned on tough basketball, having moved with his aunt, Ophelia Richardson, from Florida, back to his native New Jersey to play at St. Anthony in Jersey City for coach Bob Hurley on a team that sent six players to Division I programs. "This was my last chance," said Taylor before the Final Four.
In a break from longstanding Kansas tradition, Self encouraged (some players say mandated) everyone on the team to live in Jayhawk Towers this year. (Previously, seniors had been allowed to move off campus.) They lived on the second and third floors of the high-rise dorm across the street from Allen Fieldhouse, where they met and practiced every day. The living arrangement encouraged a closeness that might not have been possible otherwise. "Door open, guys just hanging out in each others' rooms," says Johnson. They would play the immensely popular video game Call of Duty in all its forms. Taylor likes Modern Warfare, Johnson says, "I'm strictly Black Ops." (There are other, more practical reasons for living in Jayhawk Towers: "Parking, man," says junior forward Travis Releford.)
The early-season loss to Kentucky was understandable, as was another to Duke (at the Maui Invitational on Nov. 23), but a defeat by Davidson in Kansas City, Mo., on Dec. 19 rankled the program from top to bottom. "No hype, no energy," says Taylor. Self unloaded on them. "The chemistry stunk," he said in New Orleans. "We were full of ourselves and we hadn't done anything yet."
Lesson learned, the Jayhawks didn't lose for a month -- a Jan. 28 stumble at Iowa State -- and then only twice more for the rest of the season (to Missouri on Feb. 4 and to Baylor in the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament).
It was no coincidence that the uptick in performance happened at the same time that McLemore and Traylor became eligible to practice in January. They joined the Red Team, the collection of backups, part-time regulars and walk-ons who are expected to challenge the rotation players every day. And their influence began with a bang. On the first possession of a five-on-five session in Traylor and McLemore's first practice, Robinson jumped into a passing lane -- which he does often and effectively -- and after corralling the ball, trucked upcourt.
"Thomas starts going to the rim," recalls McLemore. "But somebody cuts him off and he has to double clutch a little. Then Jamari runs him down from behind and blocks it."
Traylor busts out laughing. "I started screaming," says Traylor. Screaming what? "Just screaming," he says. "You know, like, Arrrrggggggh!" It was the moment when practice changed for Kansas, when suddenly the Red Team became a formidable opponent, pushing the regulars to improve every day (and giving Self a preview of his frontcourt rotation for next year).
The Jayhawks solidified their identity on Feb. 25 in the penultimate regular-season game, coming back from 19 points down with less than 17 minutes to play to beat Missouri in overtime in the final (for now) installment of the Border War rivalry. "It was an overwhelming emotional experience and the atmosphere in the building was just incredible," says sophomore reserve forward Justin Wesley. "That game brought us even closer together."
Kansas needed rallies to beat both North Carolina State and Purdue in the NCAA tournament and got little credit for beating North Carolina, which played without injured point guard Kendall Marshall, in the Midwest Regional final. All of this allowed Self to keep his team nestled comfortably in its underdog role. His attitude changed, however, during Saturday morning's shootaround at the Superdome, before the semifinal against Ohio State.
"Generally, this time of year you want to love on 'em as opposed to jumping on 'em," Self said after beating the Buckeyes. "But I had to get on them in the shootaround. You could see they were in a daze, looking all around. So enough of that nice guy stuff. They needed to get their butts chomped, so I chomped 'em. And obviously I didn't do a good enough job of that, either."
That's because the Jayhawks played listlessly and were behind 34-25 at the half, which led to more butt-chomping. "Come in here and get beat like this," Self said to his players. "That would be a terrible way to end this season." They tied Ohio State at 38-all six minutes into the second half and finally got their first lead with 2:48 to play.
When it was over late Saturday night, Kansas players spoke to energetic clusters of media at their cubicles on the ground floor of the Superdome. Down a short hallway and to the left in a tiny dressing room, sat links to the program's past. In one corner was Larry Brown, who coached the Jayhawks to the 1988 national title; facing him was Manning, the star of that team. (On the subject of McLemore and Traylor, Brown said to Manning, "Did we call it the Red Team when I was coaching you?" Manning looked up, smiled, and said, "Yes, Coach, we called it the Red Team.").
Brown says of the Jayhawks, "there's a calmness about this team."
He is also close to Wildcats coach John Calipari. "I disagree with [Stan] Van Gundy that Kentucky couldn't beat an NBA team," Brown said. "I think they could beat about 15 NBA teams. But you know, one game, in a venue like this, anything can happen." It is hard to see the two of them, Brown and Manning, architects of another dream, and not feel that something remarkable was about to happen.
An hour later, back in the hotel conference room, Kentucky footage was on view. Coaches nitpicked, looking for loose floorboards in college basketball's Taj Mahal. Manning noted that guard Doron Lamb is the Wildcats' only pure shooter. "Lamb is the only one of that group that's a shooter,'' Manning says. I think [freshman guard Marquis] Teague can make a shot, but Lamb's gonna score the ball.'' (Manning's assessment would prove prophetic; Lamb drained three threes and led Kentucky with 22 points; Teague also made a critical three-pointer late in the game.
Dooley pointed out Louisville's 16 offensive rebounds in the Final Four semifinals. But in all, there was a lot of praise for Kentucky. The Tuesday before the Final Four, Self had sat in his office in Lawrence and said he couldn't remember a bigger championship favorite in his career than Kentucky. Now in New Orleans, Kurtis Townsend studied his iPad. "Their stats are impressive," he says, "But one game...."
And around the table, the coaches -nodded, imagining a little N.C. State, a little Villanova, a little magic dust in the air.
Monday night again. In the Kansas locker room, players sit slouched in folding chairs. The energy from Saturday night is gone, swallowed up by the sting of a defeat that became just close enough to make anything seem possible.
Guards Johnson and Taylor remembered an agonizing miss with 63 seconds remaining and the Jayhawks training, 63-57, having come nearly all the way back. Johnson held the ball high on the right side of the court and Taylor cut to the wing. Kentucky 6-6 freshman forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist jumped out on the 6-2 Taylor, who had made a three-pointer several possessions earlier. Taylor broke back door, dusting Kidd-Gilchrist.
Johnson snapped off a sharp bounce pass. "I thought, dunk,'' said Johnson. Taylor gathered the ball and rose for a reverse layup, but the Kidd-Gilchrist caught him and blocked the shot, a play that will live many years in Kentucky lore.
"Mike didn't quit on the play,'' said Taylor. "With him being 6-6 and with his length, he just made an unbelievable play.'' Across the locker room, Kansas senior guard Conner Teahan underscored the physical -- and metaphysical -- significance of the play. "Normally,'' he said, "the guy guarding Tyshawn is not 6-6 with that kind of ability.''
Forty seconds later, with Kansas still trailing by six, Johnson got caught in the air and was called for traveling (on the playground, it would have been called "Up and down,'') and just to make Jawhawks fans feel the hurt more deeply, drained the three just after the whistle, producing a throaty gasp from the crowd, agony from one blue populace, relief from another.
No magic dust. Only confetti showered on another team.