Let’s be honest. If sometime during the 2010-2011 season, someone would have told you that Kansas would win 31 games starting Jeff Withey, Travis Releford, Kevin Young, and Elijah Johnson, you might have called the authorities, thinking that person had lost their mind. While this is Kansas, and expectations are always very high, even ridiculously high at times, you might have thought the Jayhawks could win 31 games, but you would not have believed it would be with those four guys starting.
That is what Coach Bill Self does. He wins basketball games. It doesn’t matter who is wearing the uniforms, Self and his staff find ways to prod, coax, and cajole young men into cohesive units that win a plethora of games and conference championships. I wouldn’t trade Self for any coach in America. I love the way he comports himself and love how he runs this program. I am one of his biggest fans. I have complete faith that as long as he is the head coach here, KU will win ball games.
As much of a fan as I am though, there are some things that bother me sometimes. I feel he is too rigid with his 8 or 9-man rotations he maintains basically from the start of the conference schedule to the end of the season. While I can’t complain about his long term results (this year’s edition is a perfect example), it is easy to wonder if better in-season development of his benches wouldn’t come in handy at times.
Self himself complained a few times throughout the season that KU didn’t have a point guard. The questions have to be asked. Whose fault is that? Who does the recruiting and the signing of young men to the program? Who is in charge of putting together a team that is strong at every position? We all know the answers.
While it is unfair to place all the blame for Friday night’s unfathomable collapse to Michigan (87-85 in OT) on the shoulders of one single player, especially one that has been a loyal, hard working member if this team for 4 years, but Elijah Johnson’s play and decision making in this game were incredibly bad. It really wasn’t surprising though. We have witnessed similar play and lack of floor acumen all season. Without an admission, it is impossible to know for sure if he intentionally delivered a cup check to Michigan big man Mitch McGary. I have played a lot of basketball in my life and I certainly experienced plenty of rough contact over the years and never considered it purposeful. That being said, it certainly looked as if it could have been intentional. If it was, in this day and age of close camera scrutiny on every play, it was one of the dumbest plays ever. All it did was keep the officials’ attention focused on him when he was in the contest and you knew he wasn’t going to get a call the rest of the game.
Johnson’s performance over the remainder of the game was typical. He hustled on defense and put forth extreme effort. He wasn’t ever dogging it. He just made awful decisions, especially in the last 4 minutes of regulation. He took a couple of horrible three point shots late (Johnson has a beautiful looking shot but has had trouble coaxing them through the hoop with any degree of regularity). Yes, he did make a couple, but the ones he missed, he shouldn’t have been shooting. Then there were his turnovers – penetrating and throwing the ball to the wrong players, getting stripped, and, inexplicably, not getting the ball across half court in ten seconds. To top it all off, his decision not to take a possible game tying shot from a few feet in the final seconds, choosing to instead throw the ball out to the perimeter for a 25-footer, is a total mystery. It was almost as if he thought KU was down by three instead of two. I won’t even dwell on the front end of the one-and-one he missed that would have iced the game with 12 seconds remaining in regulation.
Which leads me to my main point. Why was he in the game? Or at least, why was he handling the ball? It was obvious he wasn’t having his best game and he wasn’t taking care of the ball. It is also obvious that Self gets locked into his favorites, no matter how bad they play or how many mistakes they make. He doesn’t have faith in his bench players. Now, in all fairness, I am not in his practices. I don’t see his players perform on an every day basis. He is one of the best coaches in the game and he certainly deserves the benefit of the doubt that he knows what he is doing. I am a nothing, just a passionate fan with a laptop. Still, one has to wonder if his stubborn fidelity to strict rotations cost KU games because he had no other prepared options. I know he is so loyal to his players, especially his seniors who have waited their turn and gone to battle for him game after game. I admire that to a certain extent, especially when you see the success stories like Withey, Young, and Releford. These certainly outnumber the failures.
The fact remains that Johnson was having an awful game, displaying awful judgements, yet Self felt he didn’t have a better option. That is his fault. Anyone who watched Kansas’ games this season knew that if the Jayhawks lost a game they shouldn’t lose in the NCAA tournament, it would be because of guard play. That was the weakest part of this year’s team. Everyone knew it, including Bill Self.
As always, the sting of this loss will fade as have all others. Maybe we can remember Elijah Johnson for the great moments he provided, like his play in last season’s NCAA Tournament and his 39-point effort against Iowa State this year. Bill Self will continue to win games and very few seasons will end with a victory(as is with all but 2 teams each season). I will always remain one of Bill Self’s biggest fans and I will always love my Jayhawks. This weekend, however, and probably for the next few weeks, I am going to be a little miffed about how this game ended. Kansas is not the school that gives up 10-point leads in the last few minutes; KU is the school that makes those comebacks. Michigan guard Trey Burke deserves our admiration and our respect for his play, but he should never been in the position to be the hero. Unfortunately, Elijah Johnson is a young man who will carry this game with him forever. In all reality, Bill Self probably will, too.
Amid all this, the Wichita State Shockers are an incredible story as they made the Final Four on Saturday. As an old Shocker fan from my childhood, when the likes of Antoine Carr, Cliff Livingston, and Xavier McDaniel donned the black and gold, I will be cheering Wichita State on next weekend. I think Kansas fans should unite with Kansas State fans and cheer on the Shockers over the next week or so. The Sunflower State has a team in the Final Four. WSU deserves our support.