It's Final Four week in New Orleans, LA., and second-seeded Kansas (31-6; 16-2) has arrived to try and win their second national title in four years. Bill Self and players met with the media on Thursday.
First and foremost, Self was asked about the pressure of being in the Final Four and what types of distractions may or may not affect teams leading up to the two biggest games of the NCAA tournament. It's not always about just the games themselves, but being able to control certain distractions becomes increasingly important.
"I think the more you try to control something, the less you actually do. You just have to let it ride and go play. The things you try to control aren't the things between the lines," Bill Self told the media. "It's the media, distractions, agents, runners, family members, tickets and hotel rooms. Those are the things we need to control. As far as playing, I am not going to try to control that. All four teams have gotten here by playing a certain way."
Junior star Thomas Robinson was asked about his early experience with New Orleans and how it has affected him to this point. Players which have never experienced a Final Four can often get caught up with just being there as opposed to what can be accomplished by making this far into the tournament with the proper focus.
"It's a little over-whelming. You get here and there is a band and people hand out beads. It's exciting to be here. You have to cherish this moment, but at the same time, you can't lose focus. I am excited to do anything. I am excited to be talking to y'all right now. We have been taking pictures all day. Like I said, I am just going to cherish this moment because not too many people are fortunate enough to get here. You just have to take advantage of it," Robinson explained.
Elijah Johnson, who has performed as well as any Jayhawk in the NCAA tournament addressed the issue of distractions and staying focused as well, comparing it to having a red carpet laid out in front of him, which is a completely new experience.
"I think it's just a basketball game at the end of the day, but it's the magnitude of the game. It's what it means to people's lives, a fan base and to certain parts of the country. It's bigger than just a game," Johnson said. "To us, it's just a game. To the outside world, it can be a plus or a negative in many ways. We are conscious of that. I think that at the end of the day, it's just a basketball game. The experience of being down here and going through all this such as the setup and the media is definitely a big deal. I never felt like I had a red carpet laid out for me ever in my life. The experience is definitely fun and something I've never been a part of, but I'm enjoying it. We are down here to just play some basketball."
Finally, senior leader Tyshawn Taylor chipped in with his feelings on arriving in New Orleans and the impact the days leading up to the biggest game of their season potentially adds to the experience.
"I think it has been a long season. I am really excited to be here. I wish we could put aside all this stuff and go play, since that is what I want to do. Getting here yesterday was kind of what opened my eyes. This is really the Final Four. Of all the college teams there's only four left and we're one of them. All the hard work we have been through, this is what we talked about at the beginning of the season. This has been an up and down process for this team this year, but we're here and it feels like we have accomplished so much, but we're not satisfied with just making it here. We're excited about it, but if you make it this far, you do not want to lose now, you want to keep it going. I'm excited to be here. I wish we could just play and I can just talk to you guys after we play. This is a process, we got to enjoy it and embrace it. This is my first time here, I'm just going with the flow, anything they tell me to do, and I'm just doing it and having fun."
In keeping with the theme of avoiding distractions, Kansas has a unique situation which local media and fans of KU have turned into a possible distraction with the news of assistant and KU great Danny Manning taking the head coaching job at Tulsa University.
While it's certainly a great chance for Manning to begin his head coaching career and to possibly put himself into a position to build his resume and prove that he may one day be the perfect fit to be the head coach at Kansas after Self calls it quits, it's a loss for the current big men such as Robinson and Jeff Withey, who have become the players they are in part because of the teachings of Manning.
Staff member Barry Hinson, who played a very important role in Thomas Robinson's life following the sudden death of his mother (Hinson traveled to Washington D.C. with Robinson), has accepted the head coaching position with Southern Illinois, which means a second important figure on the KU staff will no longer be in Lawrence next year.
For KU's players which return, and for the newcomers coming in, both coaches moving on is bitter sweet, but shouldn't serve as a negative distraction this week in preparation for the Final Four.
"I am happy for our coaches. I know at the end of the day they want to help Kansas. They want to see us win a National Championship," Elijah Johnson said. "It's really about KU in the current time. I am happy they can break off and take care of their families and have a better situation for Coach (Danny) Manning and Coach (Barry) Hinson. I think that's great. I think if they have an opportunity, they should take it. I don't think it's something they should overlook. Jayhawk nation will always love them. That shows you if you do the right thing, the pie is big enough for everybody. I never thought I'd be able to help one of our coaches get a job and for us to be part of the reason that happened makes me feel good and makes me want to win even more."
Jeff Withey has improved tremendously while working with Manning and will be one player who should greatly miss his coach, but vows that the loss both during the week and after the season ends won't be a distraction.
"He's meant so much. He's an awesome coach and a great mentor. It's sad to see him go, but I'm happy for him, he deserves it. He's going to make Tulsa a lot better. He gave me a lot of confidence. Every day we worked with him, we got a lot of shots off and we work on our footwork. He gives us a lot of tricks when we are playing, so he will definitely be missed." Withey told reporters.
"It doesn't change much. We are definitely happy for both of them. It shows that if we keep on winning it opens a lot of opportunities for everybody. It's awesome for both of them. It's not a distraction by any means," he added.
Junior forward Travis Releford has worked with Manning because of his need in the low post at times over his career and feels similar to his teammates in that losing Manning his a bitter-sweet situation, but doesn't take away from the task at hand.
"He [Manning] has made a huge impact on the team," stated Releford. "He has been that guy that guys can go to outside of basketball and talk to about different situations going on in our lives. Sometimes he can relate to them. He helps us out a lot, on and off the court. Losing him is going to be huge, but right now we still have him. I don't think it is a distraction at all because they are still here with us. Right now, we can't even picture them not being with us until the time comes. We aren't really focused on that because they are still with us."
When it comes to facing Ohio State on Saturday, there are things which can be taken away from the first meeting, but just as the Buckeye's realize, Kansas understands both teams are vastly different and much improved from the early match up.
"When we played them early on, just like we played Kentucky early on, anybody you play in November or early December is like two seasons ago," said coach Self. "They (Ohio State) are definitely different in large part because Jared (Sullinger) didn't play against us. It was a home game and we have a pretty good home court. The parts have improved individually and the pieces are fitting very, very well. We've gotten better, too. In that particular game, we played well and our pieces fit better too. We've gotten consistent play from a variety of guys. They are a challenge because they score from all five spots. You are going to have to defend all five spots and that's one of the biggest challenges."
Defensively, Self talked about the difference this time, especially Jared Sullinger being in the lineup the second time around against Kansas, the Jayhawks will have a much harder time scoring in the low post and understand that a Big 10 team, especially a top-tier Big 10 team, will guard you extremely tough and will try to outwork their opponent for loose balls and rebounds, which will make it tougher for KU's offense to get easy buckets.
"Things changed with Jared (Sullinger) being in there. Thad (Matta) is a good coach. It's a lot easier to get a team to guard than it is to be cohesive offensively. They guard and we guard too," he said. "I think this will be one of those games where easy baskets are hard to come by. Hitting 70-percent of those 50-50 balls may be as key a stat in this particular game as anything because both teams have done a great job in not giving up easy baskets. One thing that the Big Ten does well as a league, having coached in it for three years, is that you better be sound defensively. That's the way the league plays."
Thomas Robinson, while looking forward to facing Sullinger, knows this time around, the Buckeye's will be much tougher.
"I really haven't looked at too many favors. I think it is going to be a really balanced, even game at all spots. They have great, solid guard play, and good bigs. We have the same thing so it should be a good game all the way around," Robinson said. "He is a good player. If you don't come prepared, he could cause a lot of problems for you. I just want to make sure that my mind is right and that I am prepared to face him."
When asked if he can take anything away from the previous match up, Robinson made it perfectly clear Saturday is a completely different beast than an early non-conference game.
"No, I really can't. That game seems like it was a year ago. We are a lot different and a lot more mature as a team. We stick together more now. We are playing better right now. We have definitely come a long way."
Elijah Johnson feels as confident in not only himself, but his team and believes KU is ready for the Buckeye's.
"I'm confident in my team right now. I have never been more confident with a team I've been a part of. I love my team. I am having fun with my team and we are learning. We went through some hard times together and were there for each other. I feel like right now we are the closest that we are ever going to be. After this weekend, we will never be together again like that. I think that is something that is on our mind. It's making us more hungry. We are having more fun and enjoying the process more because of it."
Releford is in agreement with Robinson-the second time around things will likely be completely different.
"I think playing them the second time will be a lot tougher," said Releford. "They have all of their players back. (Jared) Sullinger is one of their key guys and he didn't get to play against us at our place. I think we match up with them perfectly. It should be a fun game."
"I don't remember much except for us winning and T-Rob playing really well. I guarded (William) Buford most of the time. "He is a scorer for them. He puts up a lot of shots. It will be a challenge limiting his shots and making him take tough shots."
William Buford, Aaron Craft, and Sullinger will be a ferocious trio for the Jayhawks and are playing as well as any three players in the tournament. If Kansas can get past the multitude of media obligations, family and friend requests, and all of the situations which can cause a possible distraction, Saturday's game promises to be a heavyweight tilt between two teams capable of bring home a national championship.
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