The postseason chances of the fourth-ranked Kansas Jayhawks will not rest upon the broad shoulders of 6-foot-10 power forward Thomas Robinson, a national player of the year candidate as a junior. Nor will KU’s shot at winning Saturday’s rivalry game against third-ranked Missouri — not to mention the Big 12 Tournament or even the Big Dance — fall to the play of suddenly surging 7-footer Jeff Withey.
No, the fate of the least-deep team in head coach Bill Self’s nine seasons at KU rests with a player who has equally dazzled Jayhawks fans and driven them mad in his four years at the university.
Tyshawn Taylor’s tenure in Lawrence has been marked by enough highs and lows to make Self wonder if Taylor trains on a trampoline. There was the off-field stuff, from the scuffle with football players in 2009 when Taylor dislocated a thumb to multiple suspensions from the team for social-networking infractions. Then there’s the maddeningly inconsistent play that has led some KU fans to give him the unfortunate nickname Tyshawn Turnover.
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It’s an inconsistency that’s been left behind in recent weeks, as Taylor has stepped up his game to a level that Self says is the most consistently productive play he’s had from a guard at KU. In January, Taylor dazzled with two 28-point games in a row. Through 15 conference games, Taylor is third in the Big 12 with 17.5 points per game, higher even than his teammate Robinson, and he ranks fifth in the Big 12 in assists. He’s even been getting some buzz for Big 12 Player of the Year honors.
It has been a remarkable season for Taylor. Yet it has been overshadowed by Robinson’s NBA-level play as well as by the reputation for inconsistency that continues to dog Taylor. Indeed, KU’s rare stumbles this season have been marked by Taylor’s struggles. In a loss to Kentucky in November, Taylor went 3 for 13 from the floor. In an early-season loss to Duke, Taylor committed 11 turnovers. And although Taylor’s 21 points were a big reason KU was leading late in its loss to Mizzou earlier this month, his late-game charge and turnover — as well as two crucial missed free throws — made him one of the scapegoats.
All of this has combined to give KU fans a fatalistic attitude toward this team’s playmaker and floor leader: With all the good, they’re resigned to take the bad — and hope that Bad Tyshawn disappears for good when March comes around.
“Just coming with maturity, just kinda waiting my turn, just putting in some time: I’m the most experienced one on the team,” Taylor told FOXSports.com after the Jayhawks recently blew out Texas Tech at Allen Fieldhouse. “My teammates look to me to guide us, so I try to be that for them. . . . (But) even now, I have some up-and-down kind of games. But it’s just maturity, growing up, understanding my team needs me to play good for us to win games.”
Until this year, the Jayhawks could get away with an appearance from Bad Tyshawn. The past three years, Taylor was the fourth or fifth scoring option on teams loaded with huge talents: Cole Aldrich, the Morris twins and Sherron Collins. A four-year starter, Taylor was learning on the job. Those rookie mistakes were exposed to all.
But this year, on a team with hugely talented starters but a lackluster bench, more pressure falls on Taylor for making sure Good Tyshawn always comes to play.
“I’ve been on great teams, so if I played good or not, we still won games,” Taylor said. “And now this is different. I have to play good, be a factor in the game, offensively or defensively, for us to win games.”
In sports, inconsistency has little to do with natural abilities. And no one ever has doubted Taylor’s natural abilities. Instead, inconsistent play tends to come from derailed confidence. It’s in the head.
That’s the biggest difference Self has seen in the 2011-12 version of Taylor.
“When a kid . . . feels like he doesn’t have total freedom because of whatever reason, I don’t think they can perform their best,” Self told FOXSports.com. “And right now, he feels like he has that total freedom, because he feels like I’m 100 percent in his corner. He’s probably more aggressive now than he ever has been. He feels like he’s got to make plays for us, whereas in the past he didn’t have to make plays.”
Bob Hurley, Taylor’s high school coach at St. Anthony High School in New Jersey, said, “Sometimes an individual player gets lost in a system, and that’s probably what happened here. But they really need him his senior year, because this is the least talented Kansas team in a long time. Virtually no depth. (But) you have to play somebody a lot and, lo and behold, he’s a much better player.”
What happens in the next month will define Taylor’s career at KU. Do away with the turnovers, lead his team deep into the NCAA tournament, put Bad Tyshawn away for good and Taylor will be remembered as the four-year starter who matured in front of Jayhawks fans’ eyes. He also should have a bright future as a versatile guard in the NBA.
But remember: Even in his breakout senior season, Taylor has the second-most turnovers among players on ranked teams, with 99 so far. (Baylor’s Pierre Jackson has 102.)
“He still is maddening, just less so now,” said Owen Kemp, who runs RockChalkTalk.com, a KU basketball web site. “Now he almost looks like somebody who finally feels comfortable doing whatever it is he needs to do. You live with the madness because without him Kansas will never be what you hope they’ll be. He’s definitely had times when he’s a turnover machine but also times when he plays at a level you feel he can do whatever he needs to do. Sometimes you feel like everyone else is in slow motion.”
That, of course, is exactly what KU fans will hope to see when the NCAA tournament starts. When Robinson absorbs double- or even triple-teams, it’ll be up to Taylor to step up. As Taylor goes, so goes KU.
“I’m a more complete player,” Taylor said. “I’m making my own shots. I’m getting to the lane. I’m creating for others. But my team is looking for me to do more than I had to on past teams, because we were just so good, so I’m just playing more aggressive and more confident now.”
Which, if it continues come March, will be music to Jayhawks’ ears.