In December, Kansas Jayhawks coach Bill Self did not have reassuring words about the men’s basketball team.
“This is the softest team that Kansas has had since I’ve been here,” Self said.
Those remarks came after the Jayhawks suffered a home loss to Arizona State on Dec. 10. Just four days earlier, Kansas lost to Washington in front of a friendly crowd at the Sprint Center.
KU’s play, even in some wins this season, left Self frustrated.
But he also marveled at the Jayhawks’ ability to buck the odds, like winning at West Virginia, Jan. 15, when KU was down by 16 points.
That win signaled the team was evolving to the point where senior All-American point guard Devonte Graham cites KU’s best attribute as the one least expected—toughness.
“We’ve always talked about how Coach called us ‘soft,’” Graham said.
But Graham said since another home loss to Oklahoma State, Feb. 3, “We’ve been getting tougher and tougher each week.”
That loss was especially tough because it was in front of Jayhawks alumni dating back to members of KU’s 1952 national championship team. It also marked KU’s third loss at Allen Fieldhouse this season, the most under Self in one season.
Since then, KU has only lost twice in the last 15 games.
KU had its best moment at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha with its regional final overtime victory, 85-81, over Duke on Sunday.
That sets the Jayhawks up to face Villanova.
What makes the Wildcats so good this season? They can shoot the lights out.
They’re only six three-pointers from a single-season record for most made by a Division I team (VMI in 2007).
It falls in line to what Villanova coach Jay Wright looks for on the recruiting trail. “I want guys to have, especially shooters, I want them to have a free mind, free will and have fun playing,” said Wright at the Final Four in Houston two years ago.
Creighton was the last team to beat Villanova this season, 89-83 in overtime, on Feb. 24. Creighton coach Greg McDermott said Villanova has a tendency to score in bunches like in their first matchup Feb. 1 when Villanova went on a 15-0 run in two minutes.
Before their rematch, McDermott had some simple advice for his players.
“Just avoid the runs,” said McDermott. “To avoid the runs, you have to get over a mistake and you’ve got to move on to the next play.”
KU and Villanova are no strangers to each other. Two years ago in Louisville, the regional final battle between the Jayhawks and the Wildcats went down to the final minute before Villanova pulled out a 64-59 victory.
The back-breaker for KU was when Devonte Graham fouled out down the stretch. Jayhawks coach Bill Self recalled, “It was a one-possession game when they called a foul on Devonte for diving for the loose ball. That was a tough game. We were the 1-seed. We were the favorite.”
Not only did the Wildcats win that game, they went on to win the national championship.
Graham says this year’s Villanova squad is much the same.
“They were just a solid team just like they are now,” said Graham. “They play well together. They got a lot of good pieces and can score inside and out. A couple of them were on that team that won it.”
KU is facing Villanova in San Antonio where the Jayhawks have good memories of winning the 2008 championship, KU’s third NCAA basketball title.
After KU won its first title in ’52 under Phog Allen, the Jayhawks won it again at Kemper Arena in Kansas City in 1988 with Larry Brown as the head coach.
The 2008 title was the first under Self, and he’s hoping San Antonio will help him deliver another championship this year.
KU is scheduled to tip off against Villanova at 7:49 p.m. (TBS), after the first semifinal game between No. 11 seed Loyola of Chicago and No. 3 seed Michigan.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.