A good team always seems to find its identity by this time of year. Some teams are flashy and smooth and get out in transition and score tons of points. Other teams rely on perimeter shooting and pesky guard play to get them through a game.
Whatever the identity, this is the time of year where you match it up, pound for pound, against another team’s identity and see what happens.
That’s one of the reasons this tournament and this format is so compelling. You have teams from the Big 10, often characterized as grinders and defensive-minded bruisers. You have teams from the Big East and ACC, battle-tested and built to score in bunches. And in the end, you find out what style begets success against another and what kind of identity wins out. This is also why “match-ups” are always more important than seeds this time of year.
Bill Self has always stressed defense and effort and rebounding — those intangibles that a team can control during a game. He wants those characteristics to make up his team’s identity because they’ll always keep you in a game, even if you can’t score. He has had some success stressing this identity, as KU teams have consistently ranked among the top in the NCAA in field goal percentage defense. But many of those same KU teams could probably win close to the same amount of games based on offensive talent alone.
This team certainly cannot. It’s a different team. And I think deep down, it’s a team Self really enjoys coaching.
KU’s identity was never more on display than in yesterday’s second half against Purdue. To come back from a double-digit deficit, you have to display some serious mental toughness. You have to know that there is not a 10-point play in the rule book and that defense weighs much more heavily on turning the game than offense.
When Kansas got down early after a barrage of three-pointers from the Boilermakers, the team tightened up for a few moments. Players looked rattled. Thomas was frustrated on offense and it led to poor defense. Our guards couldn’t buy a basket. Even Self got a little red in the face, the kind of red that usually goes away after a few seconds, but seemed to linger for three or four timeouts.
But then something happened.
It wasn’t one play, because this team knows you can’t turn it in one play. And it wasn’t one huge offensive run that so many KU teams in the past have put teams away with.
It was as if the team, as a collective, remembered that they had been there before. Against Duke, Kentucky, Iowa State, Missouri. They remembered to trust each other, to trust their identity. The defense dialed up a few notches. Thomas found his way to the free throw line. Elijah kept shooting. Travis was all over the court and the floor and the glass just like Travis has been all year long. Kevin Young attacked every offensive board.
And even though the Jayhawks still couldn’t make a shot to save their life, they fought. They grinded. And they frustrated the hell out of Purdue, almost to the point where they somehow got the momentum back without making any baskets.
It’s tough to win a basketball game shooting 33% from the field. It’s altogether more difficult to do so when the senior star on the other team plays the most efficient game he has played all season, scoring nearly as many points as the entire Jayhawk team in the first half. The only way to win that kind of game is with an identity grounded in mental toughness, defense, and effort.
Luckily, the Jayhawks remembered their identity just in time. It was a perfect game for a team that needed a reminder of what got them their 8th consecutive league title and another trip to the Sweet 16.
Hopefully the offense comes. Hopefully we make a few more than 6 of 24 three-pointers and our two superstars find a way to improve on a combined 6 of 23 shooting effort.
But if the offense doesn’t come, this team will still have a chance.
As long as it remembers its identity.
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