Tempered by ‘Hell Camp,’ Kansas clamps down to oust Ohio State and reach championship game
NEW ORLEANS – Those first two October weeks before the start of basketball practice are the days the Kansas Jayhawks have come to dread. “Boot Camp,” their coaches say in a vague description of 5 a.m. wakeups, two hours of running and conditioning and practicing defensive drills without a ball.
“Hell Camp,” many of the players call it.
But when trying to understand how the Jayhawks can explode into second halves, running past baffled opponents the way they did the Ohio State Buckeyes 64-62 in the Final Four on Saturday, the best place to begin is Boot Camp. For this is where the resilience grows, where the stout defensive stands are born and the confidence that any deficit can be erased is manufactured.
“That starts the toughness,” Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend said.
Saturday the Jayhawks did something to Ohio State that many didn’t imagine possible. It broke the Buckeyes, turning the team of Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft into a baffled mass of red-clad players shaking weary heads and waving their arms in confounded resignation. A once mighty 13-point OSU lead withered away, then disappeared for good in the final moments. But you could see the collapse coming for several minutes before it eventually did.
The Ohio State players seemed unsure what to make of what was happening to them as they plodded down the floor in a fruitless pursuit of the Jayhawks who buried them in an avalanche of layups.
[ Video: Did Ohio State blow it or did Kansas win it? ]
Boot Camp, the Kansas players said.
“I think it’s one of those things where guys say, ‘I made it through Boot Camp, we’re able to handle anything,’ ” Townsend said as he stood in the Jayhawks locker room.
What else to explain the way Kansas has advanced to this national title game against Kentucky, coming back from 13-points down to Ohio State just as they did when they trailed Missouri by 19 or were down 12 to Iowa State. Something keeps happening. Opponents panic. They force shots. They argue with each other. They can’t prevent what’s coming. By the end Saturday night, Ohio State looked beaten and worn.
This never should have happened. Not to a team like Ohio State that prides itself on resilience. For half a game the Buckeyes were running away. When the Jayhawks stumbled into their locker room trailing by nine, coach Bill Self was not loud, but they could see he was angry.
“You are lucky to only be down nine,” he told them, his voice rising.
They weren’t playing defense, he said.
They weren’t running the way they should, he said.
They weren’t fighting through the low points of the game, he said.
Then in the second half, they did.
Later Ohio State coach Thad Matta stared into the distance during the postgame press conference, still stunned at his team’s collapse, and said, “We knew where (Kansas) was going to start the second half. … We couldn’t get it done.”
There’s a toughness to Self’s teams people don’t recognize. His hair is never mussed, his expressions are often serene, his suits perfect. He does not have one of those scratchy coach voices, worn hard from so much screaming. It’s easy to see him as soft with his players. His tone is not hard. It’s a quiet toughness; a will that pushes his teams in ways others don’t expect.
Self always has these expressions, the kinds of things that sound quaint when uttered in his Oklahoma drawl. “Tight huddle” is one, which has nothing to do with actual huddles on the sideline during games. Rather, it means players must learn to work together on defense in a virtual “huddle.” Another favorite is, “You’ve got to pull the rope the same way.”
Perhaps outside the Kansas locker room they sound silly, almost old fashioned. But to the players they work, enough at least, to get them to get them through one more game of this tournament and Kentucky.
On Saturday night he decided early in the second half to have his players double-team Ohio State’s star forward Sullinger, and Sullinger reacted awkwardly, losing the ball, throwing up wild shots and becoming almost irrelevant offensively. Later, Sullinger would say he didn’t expect Kansas to double-team him. The hands that slapped at the ball came from nowhere and rattled him.
Perhaps he didn’t imagine Kansas center Jeff Withey could fly through the air to block seven Ohio State shots. Nor maybe did he see the Jayhawks run as fast as they did in the second half when the missed shots and turnovers turned into a series of layups.
In the end, Ohio State learned what so many others have: there is something about Kansas few understand until it is too late. Something tough. Something molded before the season begins and they roll balls on the court.
Whatever they call it.
It came through once more.
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