ST. LOUIS – The line of scrimmage in basketball is not a line at all but rather an arc.
It is just underneath the basket, and not coincidentally the ladder straddles this line when nets are being cut down by champions. This is where close games between evenly matched teams are won, as clichéd as this sounds. This is where the elbows fly and the men roam. This is where it is never easy. Lower guts are required down here.
And this is ultimately where Kansas beat Carolina on Sunday, banging bodies and blocking shots and eventually snatching away what many had surmised to be the Tar Heels’ Final Four trip with an 80-67 victory. The Jayhawks won the line of scrimmage.
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“It’s definitely like the gridiron except with no helmets,” Kansas 7-footer Jeff Withey said. “It gets dirty down there. It gets physical but we love that. … Before this game, we talked a lot about we can’t just hope for the best. We got to go take it.”
This is a bully mindset. And they backed this up by physically and mentally bullying them into submission.
Carolina already had begun playing “what if?” in Sunday’s immediate aftermath — what if Kendall Marshall had been able to play, what if John Henson had not tweaked his ankle? When Tar Heels coach Roy Williams looks back at this game, though, my guess is he will not bemoan who was missing so much as what.
Carolina was just a little soft.
We can argue about whether this trait was inherent or brought upon by Withey and the Jayhawks’ big and wide man Thomas Robinson. What is not up for debate is the premise. Soft has been a criticism of this Carolina team all year.
They’d shed it. It always came back. It certainly did Sunday.
Do not mistake this as a comment about guts or courage. The Tar Heels had plenty of both in St. Louis. I walk away from this Midwest Regional amazed by a little Tar Heel freshman, Stilman White, who manned up and played his you-know-what off after being thrust into a starting role because of Marshall’s broken wrist. He gave Carolina a chance.
Henson, too, impressed by limping and grimacing and gutting his way up and down the floor on a gimpy ankle. And Marshall is one of the two best kids I have covered in a long time, along with Mizzou’s Kim English.
There is the difference between being up for a fight and being able to withstand being punched. The Tar Heels were just not physically prepared to handle what, in the second half, became a swarming, attacking, desperate, greedy Kansas team playing in absolute beast mode down low and everywhere else.
“It wasn’t anything, necessarily, we couldn’t handle,” Henson said. “We just didn’t.”
Kansas coach Bill Self preached throwing the first punch to his team Saturday night during meetings. “Not literally,” Robinson clarified. “But we wanted to be the aggressors. We wanted to make them feel us every play.”
Coaches always say various forms of this, of course, all of the time before games. Self had to have seen something in the Tar Heels, though, because he kept coming back to breaking their will when talking to his team. It manifested in the second half after Self switched to the triangle-and-two, basically a junk defense.
Carolina looked befuddled, when all they really had to do was get the ball in Harrison Barnes’ hands and have him drive, or do whatever necessary to get the ball in Tyler Zeller’s hands. Neither happened, and why is hard to explain.
“All of a sudden I thought we panicked … we panicked a little bit out there, and I think that’s when Withey blocked one shot in the middle,” Williams said.
He blocked two. Both were will killers.
The first block was on Henson, all the more impressive because Withey had the calm to tap the ball out to Tyshawn Taylor, who got down the court for the layup and one. Withey then blocked a driving White on Carolina’s next possession. That led to a Taylor rebound and a Travis Releford dunk.
That was ballgame. The Jayhawks had broken Carolina.
The thing is, it could have gone the other way, and was trending that way in the first half when Carolina slapped a run down on a reeling Kansas and unleashed a very angry Self tirade about toughness.
“Not me and him per se, us two,” Taylor said. “As a team, he questions our toughness sometimes, which I am sure a lot of coaches do with their players, and I think that is to get us to play tougher.”
Does he say “play tougher”? I ask Taylor.
“It’s a way a coach would say it,” he said.
Soft? I asked.
“No,” Taylor said. “He uses another word I can’t say.”
I have a feeling if I were not standing there he could have said the word. What I also know for sure is Self used that word before and during halftime.
The thing is you have the kind of team that can take it, and maybe being devoid of McDonald’s All-Americans is why Kansas can. Or maybe, it is Taylor’s and Robinson’s influence.
They are the leaders of this team, and when a game gets dirty their body language says, “OK, let’s add water and play in mud.” They are unafraid, and there are few things scarier to go up against than a team that has no fear.
This is why Kansas won Sunday and why Carolina did not, not who was missing but what.