SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP)—Rodrick Stewart waited patiently for the perfect shot, slipping through a crowd and moving behind a screen before letting it fly.
The meatball-sized wad of paper flew over a cameraman and hit Kansas teammate Mario Chalmers in the chest while he answered questions in the locker room. The Jayhawks’ leading scorer in the NCAA tournament didn’t even dangle a participle, coolly finishing his conversation to his laughing teammates’ delight.
The top-seeded Jayhawks seemed remarkably stress-free on a cool Wednesday in California, one day before meeting Southern Illinois in the West Regional semifinals.
Sure, expectations are still huge for everybody in this proud program. But after embarrassing first-round exits in the past two tournaments, Kansas feels fortunate simply to be planning for a second weekend and beyond.
And even facing the fourth-seeded Salukis’ intense defense couldn’t bow their shoulders.
“After last year, we waited a long time to get this chance,” said coach Bill Self, who has led three schools to nine straight NCAA tournament appearances, including four at Kansas. “In a weird way, and not in a good way, I think the failures last year prepared us for this year. We don’t really see the (No.) 1 seed as pressure any more. Everybody is here for a reason.”
While the Jayhawks (32-4) got to San Jose with an up-tempo offense that bested Florida, Southern California and most of the Big 12 Conference, Southern Illinois (29-6) is built to neutralize the nation’s best offensive talent—and Kansas has more than its share.
Brandon Rush and his Kansas teammates have watched tape of the trapping, aggressive style with which the Salukis yielded just 56.1 points per game—the third-fewest among 336 Division I teams this season. Kansas can’t recall facing a better defensive team, yet nobody in Jayhawk blue seemed distressed.
“The way they trap, the way they get through a screen, they’re like piranhas,” said Rush, who scored 19 points in the Jayhawks’ second-round win over Kentucky. “They look better than (Texas) A&M. They’re going to be like little gnats, little piranhas. We’re just going to have to deal with it.”
Despite the clubs’ near-opposite approaches to the game, neither appears willing to change its style of play—which should make for a compelling philosophical clash before UCLA meets Pittsburgh in the West’s late game.
Southern Illinois, which has won 15 of 16, went through numerous drills and study sessions Wednesday on coach Chris Lowery’s ideas about stopping Kansas’ speed game. Later, Self again emphasized the offensive aggressiveness that has made the Jayhawks unstoppable for most of their 13-game winning streak.
“We would be silly to try to do what they do,” Lowery said. “We can’t allow them to get into a track meet. They way they play, they can turn a turnover or a long-shot rebound into a basket within two to three seconds. It’s really amazing.”
And though Kansas seems loose and comfortable, the Jayhawks definitely aren’t among the few remaining misguided basketball fans who see Southern Illinois as the closest thing to a longshot or an underdog in this tournament.
After all, the Jayhawks were beaten in last year’s first round by Bradley, another Missouri Valley Conference school—but one that can’t match the Salukis’ six straight NCAA appearances. Self believes Southern Illinois doesn’t get enough credit, both for its renowned defense and its improved offensive attack.
“The true basketball fans recognize us,” said Jamaal Tatum, the Salukis’ leading scorer and the MVC’s player of the year. “They have to. If you’re up on college basketball, you have to notice us. We’ve got exposure in all the NCAA tournaments, but this year we came out and played hard, and it’s put us on a pedestal nationally.”
Bradley’s victory last season and Bucknell’s upset of Kansas in 2005 could provide a template for Southern Illinois: Both teams remained patient, hit plenty of 3-pointers and slowed the Jayhawks’ star players before executing just well enough in the final minutes to win.
Southern Illinois, which has never reached a regional final, also could get a boost from starting forward Matt Shaw, who hopes to be in uniform. The junior participated in practice Wednesday after seriously spraining his ankle in the Salukis’ first-round win over Holy Cross last week, but hasn’t decided whether he’ll play.
The stands in the San Jose Sharks’ hockey rink will be packed with the scores of Jayhawks fans who follow their club everywhere. And though Kansas won’t acknowledge feeling superior to its opponent in the regional semifinals, the Salukis surely will use the road-game feel to motivate them even more.
“I’m sure there are people who still don’t know,” Salukis forward Tony Boyle said. “Hopefully they will know after Thursday. That’s our mission.”