If you listen to the so-called “experts,” the Kansas Jayhawks have little chance to beat Villanova on Saturday in the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four.
That’s all right. This team has been doubted all year. In fact, it’s starting to wear the underdog label like a badge of honor.
Sometimes it seems a team plays better when the least is expected. This KU team has been maligned, bashed and criticized throughout the season for not having enough size, not enough bench and for being “soft,” a term Jayhawk coach Bill Self called it midway through the season when this was looking like a year KU might win one, maybe two games, in the NCAA Tournament and then make an early exit.
The turnaround of Malik Newman probably is the major reason for the resurgence. Newman was having a pedestrian season through the first half, having misplaced his shot and looking nothing like the player considered among the Top 5 in the country when he came out after high school.
Newman scored all 13 of KU’s points in overtime against Duke and even with his corkscrew-looking shot, he finished with 32 points. He has the ability to slash and get to the basket unimpeded as he’s developed into a dynamic offensive performer.
The sudden improvement of freshman Silvio DeSousa has been another factor. He joined the team in December and looked lost in the wilderness. I thought at one point that Self should just shut him down and wait until next year as he didn’t seem to have a clue how to play at the collegiate level.
But the light went on for him in the Big 12 Tournament and where would the Jayhawks have been in the regional final without his 10 rebounds as fellow big man Udoka Azubuike labored with fouls and stamina.
Against Villanova, I think Azubuike is the key. I’m concerned about his inability to go for more than a few minutes at a time as KU obviously is better when he’s on the floor because the offense runs through him. He’s had enough time for his knee to heal, but when he gets tired is when he collects silly fouls. He’s been plagued recently by hooking his opponents when he gets the ball on the block. He’s strong enough just to spin and go up as he’s 280 pounds of humanity.
Another key is Devonte’ Graham. He’s among the Top 5 for the Wooden Award, but all the minutes he has piled up appears to have taken something away from his game. He hasn’t shot it well the last seven games and defensively he’s been getting burned. Hopefully he can fend off fatigue for two more games.
Villanova is the best team remaining, no question. But as we have seen throughout the NCAA Tournament, the best team doesn’t always win. Just ask Virginia.
I believe Michigan will take care of Cinderella entry Loyola of Chicago, the feel-good story of the tournament. The Wolverines are just too physical and the magic is going to run out for the Ramblers.
Hopefully KU will be doubted until about 10 p.m. Monday night when it’s cutting down the nets.