Jeff Herr, a finalist in the 2011 Big Gig Contest on 610 Sports Radio, was born and raised in Kansas City. Following the Chiefs, Royals, and Jayhawks all his life has led him to blog about all three extensively at the-jeff-report.blogspot.com. He has also spent time covering the Royals for the blog site kingsofkauffman.com as well as serving for a period as the lead editor of throughthephog.com a blog covering the Kansas Jayhawks. When not writing about the local sports scene, he pays the bills by serving as an accountant.
In many ways this might be one of the hardest teams to root for in Bill Self’s tenure. With the exception of Thomas Robinson, every other player on this roster has come under fire this year. Early on, after 11 turnovers against Duke, fans were crying about Tyshawn Taylor needing to be benched. Elijah Johnson went through the regular season with possibly the banner of “most disappointing KU player” hanging over his head. Jeff Withey started the season hearing mostly jokes about the fact that he was actually starting at Kansas. Travis Releford was a fine player but had to red-shirt just to get a chance at playing.
For those reasons this also may make this Kansas team one of the most memorable ones. Despite all the adversity this team struggled through early in the season they’ve done something few other KU teams have.
This is the team that took the best shot of two double digit seed BCS schools and came out on top. This is the team that trailed for over 39 minutes against Purdue, but shook off the echoes of upsets past and won the game.
This is the team that had possibly its most disappointing player in Johnson be the hero against Purdue and last night against North Carolina. This is the team that only had one returning starter in Taylor who looked like he had no business doing so at multiple points through the season. Of three straight Kansas teams that have won 30+ games in a season, this is the one that has made the Final Four.
Depth is something that Self has always had as head coach of Kansas. Looking back at the roster of the 2009-2010 team Self could have fielded two top 10 teams. All-Americans Thomas Robinson and Marcus Morris came off the bench that season. Yet, they came up empty as the NCAA tournaments #1 overall seed. Losing to University of Northern Iowa brought up memories of all the upsets this Kansas team has had over the years.
Self brought in the #1 recruit in the country Josh Selby to go with many returning players that made the team a #1 overall seed in the tournament again the following season. A trip to the Elite 8 ended in heartbreak as so many have for Self. This looked like a year that KU would cruise to the Final Four as a 1-seed that didn’t have to play anybody higher than a 9 seed through the Elite Eight. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
After extending his Elite Eight record to 1-5 there was no doubt some soul searching going on for Bill Self. Surely there was probably some “why me?” in there as well. After his top three recruits became ineligible for the 2011-2012 season, Self knew it was going to take a lot to reach the absurdly high standards he has set for this program.
What last night’s victory has proved is that whatever answers Self found when he looked in the mirror were the right ones. Through all the adversity, with the least talented and least deep team of his tenure, Self has made himself a better coach.
As the head of this program he preaches learning and getting better to his players. Most coaches do. What’s rare is when a coach actually grows and develops with his team. Self can still recruit with the best of them but he may have now solidified himself as one of the best in-game coaches in the country.
Self pulling out the triangle-and-2 defense and flummoxing North Carolina was possibly his best coaching move of the tournament. KU went on a 12-0 run to end the game and sent the Tar Heels packing with a 13-point loss.
The only thing more impressive than Self’s growth as a coach this season has been the growth of his players. This tournament has seen the coming-of-age of Elijah Johnson right in front of our eyes. Taylor became a true leader after many called for him to be benched. Robinson went from role player to superstar. And Self went from great coach to elite coach. He now has earned the right to be mentioned with Mike Kryzewski,
Roy Williams, Tom Izzo and Jim Calhoun among others.
This means that there are only great things still left to come. If there was any knock on Self it was that he didn’t let his players go out and make mistakes and learn. Selby last year was often pulled after making a mistake. Many were concerned that method helped to stunt Selby’s development.
Self did not have the same luxury this year. With his shortest bench ever he had to let Taylor have his 11 turnover games. He had to let Johnson take his lumps with bad shooting. All those players are better for it and so is Self.
Self will lose the two best players from this team in Taylor and Robinson. He has a quality recruiting class coming in that can only get better with a few spring signings. Those players will be playing under a new version of Self. This will be the elite coach Self. No longer heavy with pressure and the “can’t get over the hump” stigma. If it wasn’t erased after 2008 it’s eradicated now. Self will be able to know how to manage a roster 10 deep but will also know that sometimes the best thing you can do is let them take their lumps.
Final Fours at Kansas aren’t exactly rare. With this being the 14th trip for the school it’s a baseline more than it is a goal. That’s not necessarily fair to have to deal with that every year, but if KU wants to be considered on that level, they have to play by those expectations. Now, what is rare is Kansas having a season like this. What was supposed to be a “down year,” has taken them to a Final Four and only two wins away from the true Promised Land.
This team may have been one of the most unlikely to be here, but with the growth of the coach and the players (and a couple more victories) it may end up being one of the most remembered.
Survive and advance is a mantra you hear often repeated in March. With Kansas’ 63-60 victory over Purdue Sunday night, this slogan was repeated many times over from the Jayhawk faithful. As a team, KU would gladly repeat that for the next four games if it ends with them winning another National Championship. After last night though, survive and advance seems the perfect motto for this team even beyond the confines of this year’s tournament.
Every player on this team seems to be an example of surviving an advancing. At some point in the collegiate career of each of these players they were confronted with adversity. At each one of those points every member of this team overcame those obstacles and that could be the reason some are calling this the toughest team of Self’s tenure.
The best player on this team has had possibly the most tumultuous journey. Thomas Robinson is a consensus 1st team All-American and player of the year finalist, yet hardly saw the floor on this team even just a year ago. Playing behind lottery picks Marcus and Markieff Morris not many would probably see much playing time. With Robinson there was an issue of not only seeing the floor, but looking very raw when he did. At the apex of Kansas’ 2011 season, against the VCU Rams in the Elite Eight, with everything on the line, Robinson only the saw the floor for 6 minutes.
Besides his struggles on the court, Robinson had to deal with much larger ones off of it. Losing multiple family members in a month’s time, Robinson was left as the caretaker for his younger sister. This is quite a heavy burden to place on a 20-year-old student athlete just trying to piece things together. It was these events that gave Robinson a greater resolve. He overcame and has played this season at an impossibly high level. No matter how many more games he plays, this will most certainly go down as one of the greatest seasons by any player in Kansas history. Survive and advance.
Tyshawn Taylor might be the most maligned leader any Kansas team has ever had. Self has even said himself that at times he’s looks like an All-American, while at others he looks like he’s never been coached. Early on in the season when the titanic matchup of collegiate blue bloods Duke and Kansas took place, it was a climactic early season battle. The supposedly undermanned Kansas team outplayed the Blue Devils. A close game late in the second half turned on a couple key turnovers by Taylor.
The response from the KU fan base could have been described as vitriolic. Here was a player who was a four year starter and still making freshman mistakes. He had 11 total turnovers in that game and there were still more awful turnovers to come. Unrest was high with the Kansas contingent. Suddenly something clicked. Taylor started playing well in conference and garnered All-American discussion. The much maligned Taylor had found his groove and finally looked like the player we all knew he could be.
Survive and advance.
Travis Releford is a Kansas City native who always wanted to play for the Jayhawks. When he signed the letter of intent to go to KU he most certainly had dreams bigger than how his career started. Coming the year after the entire starting squad from a National Championship team left, the playing time seemed up for grabs. Releford didn’t factor into the equation all that much. So much so that Self convinced him to red-shirt the following season. Even the year after that Releford still only played a little over 10 minutes a game.
This probably wasn’t what Releford imagined when he decided to go to Kansas. He could have gone to a mid-major and started. He could have gone to a lesser power and started as well. Instead he chose to go to Kansas. He took his red-shirt and did not complain. As a defender Releford might be the best on this team. A couple games in conference had the scales tipped towards KU based on his performance. He is currently averaging over 30 minutes a game.
Survive and Advance.
Jeff Withey was recruited heavily by Kansas coming out of high school. As a big man with legit skills and high upside Kansas would have been as good as any place in the country. Instead of trekking to the Midwest, the San Diego native chose to go with Lute Olsen to Arizona. When Olsen left, Withey asked to come back to his second choice of Kansas.
Upon arrival Withey also sat behind the two Morris twins and even a less experienced Robinson. He averaged 3 minutes per game two seasons ago, and only 6 last season. Coming in he started by default. The Jayhawks lost so much talent from last year’s squad there was nobody else. There were not high expectations and through the first half o the season, those were filled by Withey. Until he woke up and decided to realize that he was a top 40 recruit with legitimate skills. Inspiring songs from local media and adulation from fans, Withey had arrived as a legitimate part of this team.
Survive and advance.
Finally the hero from last night’s game Elijah Johnson. Johnson came as a five star recruit out of Las Vegas. Coming with Thomas Robinson he was expected to make a bigger impact. His freshman year consisted of only 6 minutes per game, but such is the life of a freshman under Bill Self. The following year wasn’t much better averaging only 13 minutes per game.
Whispers started coming out that Johnson was looking to transfer. Rumors persisted that he was unhappy with his playing time and wanted to go be a star somewhere. Self came out and said that it wasn’t true and Johnson was happy here. Johnson and Self both knew his time was coming and this year was his time. By many accounts Johnson has had an underwhelming year. We kept hearing great things about him from Self. He has the talent and confidence which showed it in practice. For one reason or another he was just not putting it together.
Last night, Johnson put it together. The guard hit a three-point shot early on to keep Kansas in the game and give them some life. His shot with just under three minutes to go finally put KU up by one for the first time in the game. He didn’t quit there either. A steal and an alley oop to Taylor might have been the play of the game and turned the tides. Johnson was interviewed as the star of the game afterwards with a huge grin on his face. Anybody noticing a theme here?
Survive and advance.
This team has been through more individually and as a team than most KU squad’s have to endure. They’ve been through a lot together and have garnered toughness as a team unparalleled by Jayhawk teams. Last night’s late victory over Purdue was a game this university doesn’t usually win. They have been caught in games like this before and all too often it’s ended their season. Not last night. This team did what they have been doing their entire careers: survive and advance.
Fans in Kansas City found themselves incredibly excited last week when word came down that the Chiefs were highly interested in signing Peyton Manning, the biggest NFL free agent since Reggie White.
When rumors crept out that the Chiefs were the only ones to offer Manning a contract, the excitement levels ratcheted up even further. Those reports have since been questioned by knowledgeable media in the area, but it was clear the Chiefs were interested.
Since then, it has been quite the roller coaster ride of emotions regarding the situation. What started as joy and excitement, turned to abject terror when word came out about how much time Manning spent with the Broncos. The only thing worse than a swing and miss on Manning, would be if he were to sign at rival Denver.
While that seems more and more like a possibility every day, the situation is still pending. Nothing concrete has come out on where Manning is leaning but it has been reported that the Chiefs are still in the running, however slight that might be.
If Manning chooses not to sign with the Chiefs that is unfortunate but wouldn’t be a shock. There is much more that goes on in courting free agents and negotiating things than we all realize. We don’t know exactly what Manning is looking for and we don’t know what the Chiefs have or will offer.
The most distressing part as a Chiefs fan would have to be the fact that, not only has Manning not visited KC, but he was invited and declined. If there was a way to show less interest in this team, someone would have to show me.
Even removing my bias, KC seems like an excellent fit for Manning. Indianapolis and Kansas City are as close as two cities can be when it comes to culture. The Chiefs maintain one of the best fan bases in all of sports, even through their struggles. The team went 7-9 and almost won the division while missing their best offensive and defensive players. Tyler Palko started four games and they were still within a last second blocked field goal of winning the division for the second year in a row.
On the surface this seems like a great place for Manning to compete while finishing out his career. Yet, he didn’t come to visit and (according to reports), hasn’t even talked to the team himself. I will reserve full judgment until we have a definitive answer on where Manning is going, but this does hint at some bigger issues.
There is no doubt that Manning was aware of what happened to the Chiefs last year with Todd Haley being dismissed after (reportedly) repeated issues with Scott Pioli. He would have clearly been able to see that Chiefs have not spent the money in past years to show they are committed to winning.
While the contracts to players like Tamba Hali and Brandon Flowers are encouraging, the remainder is sorely lacking. The Chiefs may be adept at identifying their problem areas, but have not shown an ability to fix them.
Kansas City chose to go the cheap route last season with their biggest offseason need at nose tackle. They didn’t upgrade their offensive line in any meaningful way and may have actually downgraded it for 2011. With a player like Brandon Carr right in front of them, the Chiefs have seemingly just let him walk away (even though nothing is official yet). While he may have cost more than the Chiefs wanted to spend, the very fact that they don’t want to spend that much conflicts with the idea they want to put a winning product on the field.
While nothing is certain, and Manning hasn’t nor will he ever explain why he didn’t want to come to Kansas City to visit, this is a swing and miss the Chiefs just couldn’t afford. Missing this big might actually be worse than not pursuing at all.
The fans in the area could talk all they want about the league-wide perception of the Chiefs, but the evidence so far has been minimal. A free agent this big barely giving the Chiefs a sniff could be the tip of an iceberg of much larger problems.
Chiefs brass have gone on record stating they want to be players in free agency this year. They elected to roll over cap space from the previous year so they would have more to spend. Whether this will come to fruition or is all talk remains to be seen.
As an organization the Chiefs have been afraid to overpay some free agents. They have put themselves in a position now where they don’t have much of a choice. A controlling, difficult to work with general manager, a stingy owner, and general dysfunction has lead to a reputation that has gone around the league. Even if it’s a good fit, players might be hesitant to sign here for these reasons.
There are two ways to fix this: winning and spending.
If last year is any indication, this team probably can’t fix this all by winning in 2012. While they may be favorites to win the division this coming season, their prospects as a true contender are minimal. If they don’t win on the field the only way players will want to come here is if they get paid.
You can’t build an entire team through the draft. Players don’t pan out, they can’t be re-signed and some years are just not available at the positions you need. An organization must be able to bring in free agents to compete.
The organization has been very quiet in recent years on why they have spent as little money as they have and what their plans are for the future. While we as fans can probably never expect a straight forward explanation from the current regime, money can do a lot of the talking.
The Chiefs don’t have to spend on every free agent out there, that wouldn’t be smart. What the Chiefs need to do is strategically identify the players that make the most sense and can help the team. Once they are identified, they need to be acquired.
Perception is reality in today’s world. The only way for the Chiefs to change their current perception is to change their reality. Make Kansas City a destination, put a competitive team on the field, win some games (maybe even a playoff game?) and we won’t have big time names dismissing the team before their even in the running.
I will start by asking everyone to keep in mind that I am not trying to say this will happen. I am asking that everyone indulge in an incredibly fun hypothetical scenario with me. The ending of the regular season this past weekend and the turn of the calendar to March means one thing: March Madness. The best sporting event in all of sports makes its annual appearance as the first rite of spring.
Looking forward to what March will bring are two very happy, very optimistic fan bases in Kansas City. Both MU and KU fans are rightfully dreaming of making noise in the coming weeks.
In the case of Kansas it would be a great show of Bill Self’s coaching talents to see this team make a Final Four in what was supposed to be a “down year.” Losing three players to the NBA, including two lottery picks, the Jayhawks were supposed to have a rare rebuilding year. They didn’t and are currently favorites for a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Missouri took what was supposed to be a “transition year” with a new coach and turned it into one of the best seasons in school history. In his first year on the job Frank Haith took a team that wasn’t his recruits, had a divided locker room before he got there, and finished the previous season with a whimper, only to have them contending for the Big XII crown throughout the season.
Both schools have had their past successes and failures come March. Missouri can go all the way back to 1976 with their first ever trip to the Elite Eight. They lost that game and have since lost three other regional final matchups denying them any Final Four in their history.
The heartbreak doesn’t end in the Elite Eight either. The fanbase is constantly haunted by memories of the second round matchup in 1995 when Tyus Edney of UCLA drove the entire length of the floor in five seconds to drop in a layup for the victory. It’s these moments that reinforce the “snake bit” mentality many MU fans have.
Kansas as a program has had a Number 1 seed more times than most other programs in the country. Unfortunately, this leads to nearly as many seasons winding up as a disappointment. Going back to the last couple of years where the Jayhawks suffered an Elite Eight loss to a VCU squad that barely made the tournament in 2011. You only need to go back another year to see Kansas getting upset in the second round as the tournament’s overall #1 seed in 2010.
For both teams March brings a little bit of anxiety for different reasons. While some of that remains, it has taken on a bit of a different flavor in 2012. Both teams have spent the majority of the year in the top 10, and the bulk of that time was spent in the top five.
With the possibility of both teams being #1 seeds going into the tournament the scenario is there in which they are both legitimate picks to make the Final Four. This is where the hypothetical comes in: what would happen in Kansas City if both teams make the Final Four?
Now, all of this is conjecture at this point, but it’s something that we have to allow ourselves to think about. After all, sports talk and sports blogging is nearly all conjecture anyway, so why not have some fun with it.
We could forget the controversial first and second matchups. The refs got too much credit for helping Missouri in game #1 when Kansas couldn’t hold an eight point lead with barely over 2 minutes to go. The same thing happened when Missouri couldn’t hold a 19 point second half lead in Lawrence. Both games only fueled the fire, but they wouldn’t compare.
Forget the possible Big XII championship matchup. A Missouri win would give them a win in their last ever Big XII game. They would hold the trophy high above their heads as they marched out towards the conference to the south.
A Kansas victory would send KU fans trumpeting about their historical dominance versus MU. Jayhawk fans would stand tall as they would send Tiger fans packing to a traditionally weaker basketball conference. Either way, it would only deepen the hatred and rivalry between these two teams.
And it still wouldn’t compare.
It seems as though this year has been on a collision course for this type of a scenario. With the schools splitting victories in the regular season neither one can truly call themselves the better team.
If the NCAA has any sense it will place them either on opposite sides of the bracket or at least in opposing regions on the same side. Anything less than a Final Four matchup for these two teams in this year would be a disservice.
A Final Four matchup would make both fanbases a little jittery. Missouri would have finally gotten over the hump and made their first ever Final Four. No longer would KU be able to hold that over MU fans. No doubt, it would not be on any Kansas fans wish list to lose that bit of leverage.
On the other side Missouri fans would have that little man in the back of their heads telling them not to get too excited. Of course Missouri would finally make it to the Final Four only to encounter their nemesis from across the border.
The only thing standing in the way of Missouri getting their first ever National Championship appearance in one of the two major college sports would be their eternal blood rival. It’s poetic.
For the remainder of this rivalry the winning team would be able to say they won when it counted most. KU fans will trumpet their Final Four appearances and multiple National Championships, but if they lose Missouri fans will always have that one day in April when all that didn’t matter.
With a Kansas victory, Missouri fans will say they’re off to bigger and better things. KU fans can retort that no matter which conference they go to, their lasting memory of this rivalry and conference will be losing on the grandest stage of them all.
I have lived in Kansas City my entire life. I am as familiar with this rivalry as can be. While I hate to see it go I understand why it’s leaving. Personally, even as good as the games have been this year I feel it would be watered down with both teams in different conferences.
Never again will these teams meet in the regular season as they’ve met this year. Never again will it have the prominence and impact that it did this past February. It seems only fitting that it would all be capped off with a meeting in April. In what could possibly be the last meeting ever it would only seem right that it would hold more significance than ever before.
I am not sure how crazy this city would get. What I do know is that I would be unbelievably glad I’m here to watch.