TULSA — Whatever innate quality it takes to perform in clutch time, to not panic when things look bleak, to extract victory from what seems certain defeat, Kansas has it.
The Jayhawks come into the NCAA Tournament with a 7-2 record this season when they’ve trailed by double digits. They’re also 9-3 in games decided by five points or less.
“Yeah, we’ve been down a lot throughout the year,” said senior guard Frank Mason. “Sometimes it’s been double figures, and I think it just helped us really grow as a team for whenever we get behind. And we showed toughness and showed leadership, and I think we need those things starting out for this tournament.”
KU (28-4), the No. 1-seed in the Midwest Regional, takes on UC Davis (23-12) on Friday at 5:50 p.m. at the downtown BOK Center.
Tulsa’s other games are also compelling: In the East Regional, 3-seed Baylor (25-7) takes on 14-seed New Mexico State (28-5) at 11:40 a.m. Friday, and 6-seed SMU (30-4) plays 11-seed USC (25-9) at 2:10 p.m. (both East games are on truTV). The other Midwest game has 8-seed Miami (21-11) meeting 9-seed Michigan State (19-14) at 8:20 p.m. (both Midwest games are on TNT).
For the Jayhawks to make another deep run in the NCAA Tournament — they lost to eventual national champ Villanova in the Elite Eight last year and were national runner-up to Kentucky in 2012 — they might need to manufacture some late-game magic at some point.
This team knows that’s more than possible. It’s probable.
Coach Bill Self said some of his team’s crunch-time performance comes down to having “pretty good guards.” But there’s more to it than that.
“This is when we play. This is when we’re at our best. This is when we enjoy it the most, obviously, when it gets a little hard.”
— Kansas coach Bill Self
“I think we’ve got a pretty unselfish group, a very unselfish group,” Self said. “And I think they’re fairly battle tested, and they like the moment. And we’ve been really good in the moment — with the exception of the last game (an 85-82 loss) against TCU. But I think they just have a lot of confidence, because these guys are pretty battle tested. They’ve been through a lot of wars together. And that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to play well, but they like it when it gets kind of tough.”
Even in that loss to TCU, KU’s opening game of the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City, the Jayhawks found themselves down by 11 with less than 14 minutes to play, and still they rallied at the end.
Next time they need such a rally, they hope this year’s experiences give them the confidence to close it out.
“Just finding a way to win,” said junior guard Devonte’ Graham. “Whether it’s me, Frank, Josh (Jackson), Carlton (Bragg), whoever it is that gotta step up at that time, and I think we done a good job of that.”
Mason was asked what kinds of things are said in the huddles in the late moments of tight games.
“Well, I just tell the guys, you know, just stay aggressive, keep believing in each other, just believe in the system,” Mason said. “We all gotta be coachable because coach has been through so many games where he been down and he had great coaching strategies to come back.”
Said Self, “I don’t know if it’s any one thing they say. But I think there’s a sense that they kinda look at each other and say, ‘OK, we’ve kind of screwed this up. We don’t have any time. We gotta make it happen now.’ And now everybody, we’re all on the same page. This is when we play. This is when we’re at our best. This is when we enjoy it the most, obviously, when it gets a little hard.
“And some of the wins we’ve had where we’ve come back, there’s also been a lot of good fortune that’s taken place, too.
“But I think there’s something about our guys that when it gets tight or late-game situations, they just think that someone in this group, if we stick to what we do, will make a play.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.