Kansas coach Bill Self admits his team drives him crazy at times. The turnovers, the rushed shots, the bad decisions and the inability to settle on an identity earlier this season combined to create stressful situations throughout the course of a 38-game schedule.
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Jayhawks center Jeff Withey says Kansas can be downright sloppy. That’s what happened in the first half Saturday night, before the Jayhawks could correct their course in a 64-62 national semifinal victory over Ohio State.
On the basketball court, sloppiness routinely comes with a finger of blame aimed at the point guard. In the case of the Jayhawks, that would be senior Tyshawn Taylor — a true study in the art of contradiction.
Exhibit A: (From the final seconds of that win in the Superdome Saturday night.) Kansas trailed by as many as 13 points in that sloppy first half, but played solid defense to get back in the game, eventually taking a 64-61 with 8.3 seconds remaining. With five seconds left, Taylor intercepted an Ohio State pass intended for William Buford and it appeared the game was over. Taylor could have attempted to dribble out the clock, but saw teammate Elijah Johnson streaking to the basket for a potential layup or dunk. Taylor fired a bullet pass that was off the mark, the ball skidding behind Johnson and coming to rest on the Kansas bench.
Self joked later the pass might have been intended for him. But before he could laugh, the coach saw Ohio State with the ball, down three with 3.8 seconds left. And the crowd of 73,361 — along with a national-television audience — got a quick study in the Kansas career of Taylor.
“I said all along Tyshawn can make plays you can’t coach, which was the steal against [William] Buford,” Self said Sunday. “And he can make a play that looks like he’s never been coached, which was the pass two seconds after that.”
Kansas fans would say those two seconds symbolize Taylor’s time wearing the Crimson and Blue uniform of the Jayhawks. They’ve cheered him for the big plays but likewise criticized him for the knucklehead moments.
It seems there have been plenty of both for the 6-foot-3 guard from Hoboken, NJ. But Taylor has put the majority of his inconsistent play behind him and showcased the best stretch of his career since the start of Big 12 play in early January. He was an early season candidate for the Bob Cousy Award for the top point guard in the nation, was dropped off the list of hopefuls, and then added back when the finalists were named. That is not only unusual, it reflects the wide spectrum of opinion on Taylor’s play.
“I think I had a nickname earlier in the season — ‘Tyshawn Turnover Taylor.’ I had that nickname, but I haven’t heard that in a while — not because I haven’t been turning the ball over, but we’ve been winning and nobody cares,” Taylor said. “There’s a lot more positivity now. We’re in the national championship game. If you’re a true fan, how can you not respect that?”
Taylor is 40 minutes away from being the starting point guard on another Kansas championship team. True to form, he loves the underdog role Kansas has assumed heading into Monday night’s championship game against Kentucky. He is excited about a second shot at the Wildcats, who laid a 75-65 whipping on Kansas back on Nov. 15 in New York’s Madison Square Garden.
“We’ve got one game left; that’s it,” Taylor said. “It we don’t go out and play like that — like it’s our last game — I mean, 40 minutes, anybody can get beat. You know what I’m saying?’
A championship ring would earn Taylor a special place in history at a school bulging with tradition and trophies. But this is the guy who just never seemed to get it. This is the guy many fans wanted to ship out of Lawrence. This is the guy who seemed too immature to lead the Jayhawks to greatness.
Sunday, Taylor was asked about his unusual relationship with the Kansas fans, and his response came with a never-ending smile that comes from understanding.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve had an up and down relationship with the fans,” he said. “They may have had an up and down relationship with me. I’ve always loved our fans and I’ve always felt they are the best in the country.
“But I can understand as a fan why you would be frustrated sometimes watching me. I can totally understand that. I watch basketball too and when Kobe [Bryant] misses a shot, I get frustrated too. I want to throw a ball at the TV. I just don’t take it as far as emailing him or posting on his Facebook.”
Funny that Taylor should mention social media. He is one of the most active Twitter posters in college basketball. If you’re ever up in the middle of the night, log on. Taylor will likely be tweeting away about his energy level, not being able to sleep, or taking a shower to snap out of his insomnia.
Back in 2009, Taylor was part of an embarrassing scuffle between football and basketball players on the Kansas campus and dislocated his thumb. He wrote on Facebook that he might transfer in January 2010. Self has suspended Taylor a couple of times — first in February 2011 for a violation of team rules, and again this season when he and backcourt partner Elijah Johnson were suspended for this season’s two exhibition games. No reason was ever given.
When Taylor started this season with 58 turnovers in 14 games (4.1 per game), the fans lashed out at him with tweets, posts and comments on every site possible. But Taylor just smiled again Sunday when asked about that conflict.
“It’s cool,” he said. “Coming from [my background in Hoboken], it’s all fun and games. I live with it, I enjoy it, I embrace it. And criticism is just motivation. I have fun with it. I don’t take it too hard. I don’t go crying in my room when people say I suck. I laugh at it. I show it to my teammates. Then it’s over with it. I won’t think about it the next day. It’s water down my back.”
Taylor goes into the championship game with a 127-20 record at Kansas. His 126 starts are seventh all-time at KU. He ranks 14th with 1,561 points, seventh with 572 assists, and 12th with 171 steals. He is only the third player in KU history with a combination of 1,400 points, 500 assists and 150 steals. The others are Darnell Valentine and Kirk Hinrich.
“Ty has had a great career,” Self said. “He’s one of the better guards that has ever played here. He’s been a little bit up and down, inconsistent. We’ve had a good relationship, but it’s better this year, there’s no question. It’s been a little combative from time to time.
“He’s probably as criticized going into this season as any player we’ve had since I’ve been here. He brought a lot of that on himself. He gets in his own way a little bit. He’s emotional. But that’s also what makes him good. Now he’s harnessing that emotion in a much better direction to allow him to be a much better player.”
This Kansas team lacks the star power of past Jayhawk Final Four squads. That has allowed Taylor to make this his team, even with All-American Thomas Robinson the focal point of everything the Jayhawks do.
“I think Tyshawn has wanted so bad all the responsibility, but he couldn’t get it because of the personalities on the team,” Self said. “He’s one of those guys: The more you give me, the more I’ll focus or try to do and not hold back.
“He wants this bad, and he loves the thought this is his team. I think that, as much as anything, has given him confidence.”
Taylor admits the criticism has faded considerably the past couple of months. At Kansas, any team that comes this far is expected to finish the task at hand — underdogs or not.
If the Jayhawks finish this wild and surprising run through the NCAA tournament, it is likely Taylor will have a hand in the outcome. Maybe he will even hit a 3-point shot, something he hasn’t done since March 9 against Baylor.
Taylor is a 36.8-percent shooter from 3-point range during his career and has stroked it at 37.7 percent this season. But he is 0 for 20 in the NCAA tournament. Inside the arc, he is 24 for 43 (55.9 percent).
“If I get open, I’m going to shoot it confidently,” Taylor said of breaking out of the three-point slump. “If it goes in, that’s good.
“I think I’m definitely due, man. I think the basketball gods are with me tomorrow. I got to make one. I can’t leave like this.”