By C.J. Matson
ST. LOUIS — The Gateway Arch in St. Louis is considered the gateway to the West, but the Kansas Jayhawks now consider it the gateway to New Orleans.
For the second time in four seasons, the Kansas Jayhawks are heading to the Final Four, beating the North Carolina Tar Heels 80-67.
Expectations are always high on the Kansas basketball team, but they were substantially lower this season because they lost seven players, including the Morris twins and Josh Selby.
Throughout the season, the Jayhawk players talked about how they wanted to prove doubters wrong because they felt disrespected. Yet, being disrespected fueled them to maximize their potential and reach their ceiling.
“I think that’s when I perform my best, when somebody doubts you,” Thomas Robinson said. “As a team together, we knew that we could do it, but it took a lot of work. It just wasn’t a cake walk.”
They stuck together, even through the tough times when they lost Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor for the season because of eligibility issues, had their hearts broken against Duke in Hawaii, got embarrassed against Davidson in Kansas City and lost a high-stakes game to their biggest rival, Missouri, in Columbia.
Sticking together when your back is against the wall is sign of strong mental toughness and intestinal fortitude, and that’s what Kansas did this season. They exhibit resolve and character.
“Nothing fazes them,” Bill Self said of his team. “No matter what the situation is, they just think that they’re going to figure it out.
For a senior like Tyshawn Taylor who has experienced a myriad of low moments that include multiple suspensions and scrutiny from Jayhawk fans during his time at Kansas, it’s extra satisfying.
“Through everything that I’ve been through and all the criticism and doubt, it feels good,” Taylor said. “I feel like I proved a lot of people wrong today, and as a team, we proved a lot of people wrong.”
North Carolina was hitting on all cylinders in the first half, scoring 47 points against the Jayhawks and shooting 63 percent from the floor. In the second half, the Kansas defense shut down the high-octane North Carolina offense, yielding a mere 20 points and allowing them to shoot only 22 percent from the floor.
In the game that was emotionally high because a trip to the Final Four was on the line, it could have easily gotten out of the Jayhawks hands, but just like in their earlier games this season – most notably versus Missouri Tigers, Baylor Bears and Ohio State Buckeyes – they were focused and dialed in.
“We had the attitude that we had to come out here and be the aggressive team,” Taylor said. “They gave us their best shot. They played really well and they’re well coached team with really good players, but we made the plays defensively that we needed to win this game.”
Self said this year’s team played as close to its ceiling as it possibly could and that he’s never enjoyed coaching a team more than this year’s squad.
“I love them,” Self said. “We fight, it’s combative sometimes, but I love coaching these guys. They have done so much as far as their work habits and representing our school in a way that has given us a chance. It is just remarkable to see them cutting down the nets out there because this would not be the year that anybody would have thought we would do it. It’s a pretty cool feeling.”
The Kansas Jayhawks now face the Ohio State Buckeyes in the national semi-finals Saturday. Kansas beat Ohio State in December 78-67, but Jared Sullinger was unable to play due to back spasms. Kansas dominated Ohio State statistically, but the Buckeyes have drastically improved since that game.
“You know if you get this far, you’re going to play a great team, no matter what,” Self said. “And they (Ohio State) get the chance to play a pretty good team, too. It should be a lot of fun.”