Tom Keegan: Jayhawks ready to let it fly in Elite Eight

Kansas guard Devonte' Graham (4) and Kansas forward Silvio De Sousa (22) slap hands after connecting on a lob jam during the first half, Friday, March 23, 2018 at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb.

Omaha, Neb. — As difficult as it was for the pro-Kansas crowd to watch a 20-point lead shrink to one-fifth that size, the final 10 minutes of KU’s 80-76 survive-and-advance victory Friday night against Clemson served a purpose.

“Certainly nobody can say that we’ve played our best game yet,” Kansas coach Bill Self said in the hall outside of his team’s cramped locker room inside CenturyLink Center. “Hopefully, that will come Sunday.”

To players and coaches who draw so close to the Final Four only to fall one game short, that one game always seems as if it happened yesterday.

Listening to Self and senior point guard Devonte’ Graham look back on the Elite Eight loss to Oregon, the disappointment seemed that fresh to them.

Most who watched Kansas blitz Purdue in last season’s Sweet 16 gave Oregon little chance of keeping Kansas from what would have been Bill Self’s third Final Four.

“We played almost three perfect games going into that game and pretty much laid an egg against Oregon,” Self said.

Perfection is difficult to sustain. After all, Don Larsen didn't make it out of the second inning in his first start of 1957 after tossing a perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

KU played as close to perfect as is reasonable to expect for the first 30 minutes Friday against Clemson and then got its egg-laying out of the way in nearly frittering the lead away, thanks to sloppy play against full-court pressure and substandard free-throw shooting.

“This was a year where it just seemed weird because we haven’t played great yet,” Self said. “We were OK against Penn. We played pretty good for the most part against Seton Hall. We played decently tonight, but it wasn’t great.”

Not as deep and lacking the projected lottery pick that most of Self’s teams have, this team has done a terrific job of assuming Self’s aggressive personality and, with it, a healthy dose of confidence.

But unlike most Kansas squads, this one hasn’t played with a big lead that often, and when it did Friday it morphed into the polar opposite of itself. Passive at both ends, seeking to avoid turnovers and fouls, instead of gunning for points and stops.

“I really felt like the first 30 minutes we looked like a really good basketball team,” Self said.

“And the last 10, I didn't think we played very well at all. But we were playing not to lose down the stretch as opposed to trying to close them out. But we did enough.”

Related document

Box score: Kansas 80, Clemson 76 ( .PDF )

Kansas survived its best player, Graham, having an off night by his standards. When does he ever telegraph a pass and then foul the player who intercepted it to turn two points into three? Never. When does he ever battle foul trouble that makes him sit for six minutes? Never.

“Obviously, he hasn’t shot the ball well of late,” Self said of Graham, who has a .286 3-point percentage in his past six games. “He made two 3s the second half and a little floater that were great moves, but we haven’t seen the real Devonte’ yet.”

Again, maybe Sunday.

Self was pleased that Kansas was able to hold it together when Graham sat.

“And you know that may be the first time we played without him even in practice, so the fact that it stayed around 15 when he was out of the game, that’s probably about the best I can hope for,” Self said.

Kansas built its big lead by riding a dominant Udoka Azubuike (14 points, 11 rebounds) inside and by confidently taking aim at 3-pointers and hitting them. The Jayhawks made 10 of 22 (.455) from beyond the arc and are shooting at a .405 clip for the season.

In theory at least, zone defense are vulnerable against 3-point-shooting teams. Without yet knowing whether Duke or Syracuse would be Sunday’s opponent, Self said he wasn’t going to change his message to his players in at least one regard.

“I’m telling our guys to let it fly, because no matter who we’re playing we’re going to have to shoot 30 3s because they’re going to be playing zone,” Self said before Duke defeated Syracuse.

A senior, Graham is a third-year starter and KU has reached the Elite Eight every year he has started, only to lose to Villanova and then Oregon.

“I mean, I think about it all the time,” Graham said. “I just told the guys in the locker room, ‘I've been here the last two years, and this year we’ve got to get over that hump.’”

This is Self’s eighth Elite Eight in 15 years at Kansas. He also took Tulsa and Illinois that far in the tournament.

“We should play free,” Self predicted. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t because these guys have overcome more than most other teams have.”

Duke and Syracuse, two of the three tallest teams in the country, both rank among the top 25 in defending the 3. But letting it fly, with long shots and in portraying themselves as long shots battling heavyweights, is when the Jayhawks tend to soar.

If KU falls one game short of the Final Four, the opponent’s performance is likely to have more to do with it than KU’s nerves or other intangibles.

This KU squad very much has the feel of a group that believes in itself and is ready to let it fly Sunday.


More news and notes from Kansas vs. Clemson


By the Numbers: Kansas 80, Clemson 76.

By the Numbers: Kansas 80, Clemson 76.

Comments

Bryce Landon

I hate both Duke and Syracuse, but I'm glad we got Duke in the Elite Eight.

On the one hand, if Kansas carries out its usual tradition of messing the bed in the Elite Eight, better that it be against #2 seed Duke than against #11 seed Syracuse. No shame in losing to a team that's more talented than we are, no shame in losing a game everyone thinks we're going to lose. Better that than losing to an #11 seed that (A) we already blew out in December and (B) needed a First Four game to get into the Tournament at all (a la VCU in 2011).

On the other hand, how sweet would it be to beat Coach Ratface and that little bitch Grayson Allen? And, while Bill Self sucks at winning Elite Eight games, he does have a 2-1 record against Puke, and both of his Elite Eight wins have come against teams from the state of North Carolina (Davidson in 2008 and UNC in 2012).

1 month ago

Report

Rae Bricil

i like the fact that we are playing Duke as well. Apart from being talented Duke is a tough match-up due to their size and while Bagley is a match-up problem for most he appears to be even more so for this KU team at the four spot.

Our bigs have to to be agressive yet stay out of trouble. Would still love to see Silvio and Dok on the floor at the same time. I think Silvio could give Bagley some trouble while Dok and Carter go at it. Not to live in the past but this is a game where having Preston would have been great.

That said, I like our chances--Graham is due to light it up and we are due for a game where everyone is hot. I think we go out guns blazing and win this game by 7! Graham's not going to be the Jim Kelly of the E8 (one off but still).

1 month ago

Report

Rae Bricil

Also the world is not right if KSU wins and KU loses Bruce has the same number of F4's HCBS---i know the IU team was Bill's but still as we have seen talent doesn't guarantee a F4.

1 month ago

Report

David Robinett

Use Mitch to Hack-a-Bag(ley)

1 month ago

Report

Barry Weiss

Let it fly! I like that. We have lived or died by the 3 all year, keep letting it fly Jayhawks!

1 month ago

Report

Joe Ross

Now Im not a superstitious person, but this *is* a year ending in "8". As in "1988", "2008", "2018"...

Just sayin'.

Maybe we get over the hump this year. I guess that would be more appropriate to talk about if we made the Final Four, though, huh?

1 month ago

Report

Joe Ross

Kansas needs to step up and own its blueblood heritage.

Kentucky 2012, Louisville 2013 (vacated), Duke 2015, North Carolina 2017,...

Roll call Kansas?

1 month ago

Report

Steve Zimmerman

I hope we do not underestimate Dooke's zone with length and athleticism. Our kids have got to use their instinct and bball IQ a little bit more than just 'letting it fly'... Let's beat the Devil!!! Go Jayhawk!!!!!

1 month ago

Report

Sam Allen

Height also Matters to especially come tournament time!

Want Vernon Carey, James Wiseman, Romeo Langford, & CO and not Duke, Memphis/Kentucky/Duke, and/or Indiana/ Vanderbilt? Then We must get the W!, because The winner of KU vs Duke will most likely get the last remainder of the best recruits, so let's get the W!

1 month ago

Report

Sam Allen

KU PLEASE pressure the crap out of th ball and rebound!

1 month ago

Report

Sam Allen

Seriously, Let it fly is our only is our only cure? What the he'll will we do on defense, lol-let it fly.

1 month ago

Report

Sam Allen

Let it fly won't matter if we don't pressure the crap out of the ball!

1 month ago

Report

Corey Sparks

Tough matchup. But that's not what will decide this game. It's which team handles their nerves better. Duke is really young, and coach K said they played like it last night, so it's possible they get tight. Same with Kansas, other than Devonte and Svi this is basically everybody elses first NCAA tournament. Duke has everything to lose. Kansas I really don't think does. Noone expected them here. They have overachieved, but are still hungry. There's really no reason for them to be tight.

Add that to the fact that Self has known since last Sunday, the elite 8 matchup would be against a zone. So he has had a week to prepare for zone. On paper we shouldn't win, but I think we will surprise everyone tomorrow. Rock chalk!

1 month ago

Report

Corey Sparks

Not only is it 88, 08, 18. The final four is also in San Antonio. The last time it was in San Antonio was 2012. The time before that 2008.

1 month ago

Report

Kerby Rice

Completely irrelevant to the KU vs Duke matchup, but as I watched the K-State and Loyola game I became curious about the Loyola coach Porter Moser. Did a quick google search and, to only add some fuel to the fire, I read that in 2007 our very own Dr. Sheahon Zenger canned Moser at Illinois State!!!!! I certainly do not feel good about this guy hiring Bill Self's replacement at some point in the future.

1 month ago

Report

Robert Brown

Kerry. I don’t understand your point. Moser had a conference record of 22-50 when he was fired. Are you saying the wait and see strategy with Beaty is more desirable?

Moser was replaced with Tim Jankovich who proceeded to turn around the program. It would appear that firing was the right decision.

1 month ago

Report

Commenting has been disabled for this item.