By DAVE SKRETTA, Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Charlie Weis was quick to tweet his support of the Jayhawks when they punched their ticket to the national championship game. It was no surprise. The recently hired football coach has been a public supporter of the program from the moment he arrived on campus.
Perhaps he sees something in the gritty toughness of the basketball team that he'd like to see in his football team. Or maybe he's just fond of its version of the 2-minute drill.
The Jayhawks have been working it to perfection the NCAA tournament.
Kansas keeps getting off to slow starts, keeps driving coach Bill Self to the verge of a nervous breakdown. The team keeps playing in herky-jerky fashion for about 38 minutes. And then, when the game is on the line, the Jayhawks put things into overdrive and end up on top.
"This team, you have a bunch of overachievers who won't quit, much like their coach, and they just will themselves to victory," said athletic director Sheahon Zenger, who also comes from a football background. "You don't ever think of Kansas as an underdog, but we've been one most of the tournament, and they've played with some freedom and tenacity."
They've needed every ounce of tenacity, every bit of nerves, just about every time. Nothing has come easy this season, nothing delivered to a gilded program on a golden platter.
It won't come easy against Kentucky in Monday night's title game, either.
Still, Zenger believes there is a certain amount of fate — perhaps even destiny — to the way Kansas has played in the NCAA tournament. He's not alone, either.
Tyshawn Taylor points to a comeback win over Missouri, when the Jayhawks were down by 19 in the second half. Thomas Robinson remembers gut-check wins over Purdue and N.C. State, and the fact that North Carolina guard Kendall Marshall was hurt when Kansas ran into the Tar Heels.
Zenger remembers looking at the scoreboard Saturday night, when the Jayhawks trailed Ohio State by 13 points, and figured they had a chance if they could get the lead under 10 by halftime. Travis Releford's layup at the buzzer made it a nine-point game.
"You come to expect those things out of this team," Zenger said Sunday.
The Jayhawks eventually would fend off the Buckeyes in the final minutes, walking the same tightrope they've teetered on all tournament long right into the national championship game.
The way they've done it has been a departure from most seasons at Kansas.
Sure, there have been plenty of blowouts, but there have been many more close games — tight losses to Duke and Missouri, tighter wins over the Boilermakers and the Wolfpack. They're games that steeled a veteran team for the stretch run, and that gave a scrappy collection of overachievers the confidence to keep going when things get rough and time is running out.
"The ones that we won, it felt so good to come back and take a game from somebody, and I think we like that feeling," said Elijah Johnson. "There's been some situations where we've been behind and had to fight back, and at Kansas, we don't lie down. We fight back."
The Wildcats have rolled into an intriguing title tilt with a phalanx of NBA-ready talent, rarely getting tested along the way. They've been coldly efficient throughout the NCAA tournament, just as they were in the regular season, when they lost only to Indiana and Vanderbilt.
They expected to be playing for a national championship.
Early on, not even Self believed the Jayhawks would be, too.
"But that's what makes it fun," the Kansas coach said. "No team wants to sweat it out for 38 games — no team does — but you have to play some close games, because you get down to the end of the season, you know you're going to have to win some."
They've certainly done that.
Kansas trailed the Boilermakers almost the entire way in Omaha, finally pulling in front with 3 minutes to go. The win sent them to St. Louis, where they stumbled early against N.C. State and clung to a one-point lead with 90 seconds left before finally hanging on.
In the regional finals against North Carolina, the Jayhawks got a break when Marshall's broken wrist kept him from the lineup. Kansas again led by a single point at the final media timeout, and then charged down the stretch to win going away.
"They've got a great will to win," Kentucky coach John Calipari marveled. "They're a veteran team. They've got juniors and seniors, and they have a great will to win. It's been amazing."
Taylor, the Jayhawks' fearless senior guard, recalled a sense of calm against the Buckeyes in the national semifinals. Kansas couldn't splash a shot in Lake Pontchartrain, and Ohio State was having its way inside, but there was a feeling all along that Kansas was just fine.
"We know that getting down five points, 10 points, it isn't the end of the world; and being up five or 10 points doesn't mean the game is over," he said. "We've been through so many situations like that this year. Being up and being down doesn't mean the game is over."
Self claims to be having a "blast" leading his team through these nip-and-tuck games.
He could have fooled about 73,000 fans Saturday night.
Despite having one national title already on his resume, Self still stomped and twirled and gesticulated like a wild man on the elevated court inside the Superdome, theatrics at their best on college basketball's biggest stage.
Later he appeared cool and relaxed, perhaps because the same story had played out so many times before.
"You look at our last four tournament games, Purdue has us down and out, N.C. State to a one-possession game, North Carolina to a one-possession game. ... It's been amazing how they've grown to trust each other," Self said. "It's been a blast to watch."
Regardless of whether you believe in fate, that's where most people would agree.
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