Why should little Detroit — enrollment 5,600, the school that helped propel Dick Vitale into your ears and eyeballs — worry you, Kansas fans?
One word: Bucknell.
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Another? Northern Iowa.
Jayhawks faithful have seen this act before. Whenever a so-called no-name program from a so-called no-name league shows up on Kansas’ dance card in Bracketville, get ready to hold your breath.
Mid-majors have been the David to the Jayhawks’ Goliath for much of the past decade now, knocking Kansas out of the NCAA tournament in 2005 (Bucknell), 2006 (Bradley), 2010 (UNI) and 2011 (Virginia Commonwealth). Bucknell, Bradley and Northern Iowa stunned the higher-seeded Jayhawks before they could make it out of the first weekend of the Big Dance. Kansas coach Bill Self is the new Lute Olson — when his teams go far, they go very far (2008 national championship, three Elite Eights). And when they go home, they go home quickly, often in unexpected fashion.
This Jayhawks team has been something of an unexpected surprise, in a good way. Despite losing the bulk of its scoring and rebounding from the previous season, Kansas jelled into arguably the toughest unit, overall, in the Big 12 conference; the Jayhawks won 16 of 18 conference games as part of the first true round-robin schedule in the league’s short history.
Pundits and peers cited this campaign as Self’s best coaching job, which was also something of a backhanded compliment, as it was also one of the least talented rosters he’s fielded in Lawrence. Rivals Missouri and Baylor had more athleticism and team speed, and yet the Jayhawks still managed to go 3-2 against them, sweeping the Bears in the regular season.
Other than a pair of All-American candidates in forward Thomas Robinson (17.9 points per game, 11.8 rebounds per game) and point guard Tyshawn Taylor (17.3 ppg, 4.8 apg), the general consensus is that this team overachieved. Center Jeff Withey (9.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg) blossomed into the Big 12’s Defender of the Year, but the Titans are a rare mid-major with size, countering with a pair of 6-foot-10 seniors in Eli Holman, a transfer from Indiana who’s averaging 10.9 points and 6.8 boards per contest coming off the bench, and LaMarcus Lowe.
Kansas Key Player: Tyshawn Taylor Robinson is going to get his, you figure, even with the Titans’ height. T-Rob might be Kansas’ best player, but the 6-3 Taylor is the straw that stirs the drink for the Jayhawks’ attack. In Kansas’ 26 wins during the regular season, the New Jersey native averaged 3.2 turnovers. In the Jayhawks’ five regular-season losses, the senior averaged 4.8 turnovers.
Detroit Key Player: Ray McCallum The Titans feature a former McDonald’s High School All-American of their own in guard Ray McCallum, son of the Titans’ coach of the same name. The younger McCallum was chased by Oklahoma, UCLA, Florida and Arizona before deciding to play for his dad. He’s listed at 6-2, but is a potential game-changer (15.6 points per game) who won’t hesitate to pull the trigger in the clutch. A cat-quick defensive pest, the Titans guard averages 1.5 steals per contest and recorded at least one takeaway in all but five games all season.
Key Matchup: Travis Releford (Kansas) vs. Chase Simon (Detroit) This one may come down to the play on the wings, so keep an eye on Releford, a 6-6 stopper, and Simon, a 6-7 guard who averages 13.5 points per game and netted 20 or more points seven times this season. The Jayhawks’ junior guard is usually assigned to cover the opposition’s best wing scorer, and Simon will look to chuck it from just about any spot on the floor.