Saturday’s Kansas Collapse a Long Time in the MakingPosted by KoryCarpenter on April 1st, 2013
You could watch the final possession of Kansas’ 87-85 Sweet Sixteen loss to Michigan 100 times and never figure out what was going through Kansas guard Elijah Johnson’s head. The prep point guard turned college shooting guard turned college point guard never adjusted to his new(er) role as floor general this season, and it was no more evident than in those final eight seconds of overtime against the Wolverines in Cowboys Stadium. Kansas had been melting down like Mickelson at Winged Foot since the 2:25 mark in the second half, but they still had eight seconds to force another overtime or win the game outright. Bill Self drew up an effective play for the situation. Jeff Withey set a fake screen at the top of the key and Michigan bit. The 6’8″, 250-pound forward Jordan Morgan immediately switched off Withey and onto Elijah Johnson with five seconds left, changing directions and giving Johnson momentum to go with his decided speed advantage. “I thought he could get to the rim,” Self said after the game. Correction: Johnson was given a free pass to the rim.
For whatever reason, Johnson didn’t take another dribble after this point. Not only that, but he took an awful route to the basket. And when that awful route led him to no-man’s land under the hoop, he did what coaches for decades have told point guards not to do from first grade to college and beyond: He left his feet to make a pass. But not only that, either. He left his feet before deciding where the pass was going. As most know, he ended up kicking it 30 feet away to Naadir Tharpe for a three-point floater off one foot as the clock expired. Because when you have three seniors and the potential No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft on the floor, giving your backup point guard jack up a floating one-footer from distance is the way to go.
But Friday’s game wasn’t lost in those ugly, final eight seconds. It was lost slowly over the last two years by Bill Self. It was lost in high school gyms from Flower Mound, Texas, and Marion, Iowa, to Orange, California, and Hampton, Virginia. Bill Self wanted a point guard for this team. He needed a point guard. So he went after one. In the last two recruiting classes he went after five-star point guards Josiah Turner, Marcus Smart, and Anthony Barber. He offered four-star recruits Gabe York, Marcus Paige and J-Mychal Reese. He even went after Arizona guard Mark Lyons, the former Xavier point guard who listed the Jayhawks as a possible transfer destination before ultimately deciding on the Wildcats. Self ended up with sophomore Naadir Tharpe, the #19 rated point guard by Rivals.com in the class of 2011. Now, some of Self’s recruiting woes were a product of bad luck. In the 2010 class, Self had landed Josh Selby, the #1 point guard and #1 overall player on Rivals.com. You can’t blame Self for going after a potential 1-and-done point guard while lower rated recruits in that class like Ohio State’s Aaron Craft were on track for solid four-year careers.
That’s what coaches do at the best programs, and that’s what any coach would do if he had a shot at a player like Selby. You go after the best and risk them leaving you empty-handedr. Selby’s decision to enter the NBA Draft after his freshman year wiped out an entire recruiting class after Royce Woolridge, the only other player in that class, transferred to Washington State. Two years later, Naadir Tharpe has in fact improved, averaging 5.5 PPG and 3.1 APG off the bench this season. And he wasn’t awful in this NCAA Tournament, scoring 12 points in the Third Round against North Carolina and getting seven assists against Michigan. He will likely start at least next season and won’t be a bad player the rest of his career. But there is a reason Self continued to search for a point guard even with Tharpe in tow and the nation’s #2 recruiting class heading to Lawrence last summer. And there’s a reason, even after playing off the ball his first three seasons, Self trusted Elijah Johnson to run the team down the stretch this year, putting six months of work into his hands with eight seconds on the clock and his team down two points. “We don’t have a point guard,” Self said last month after losing to Oklahoma State at home. He was right then and he was right as Johnson dribbled under the hoop on that last possession without a clue of what to do. “I could have done a much better job from the bench being up 12 late,” Self said Friday night. “We just didn’t get it done, period.” He was right again, in more ways than one.