What a difference a year makes for Kansas

March, 20, 2009
It's not even close.

The 37-3 Kansas team that won the NCAA title last April was completely different than the young team Bill Self takes into this year's tournament as a No. 3 seed. The only similarities for the Jayhawks -- who will play No. 14 North Dakota State in Minneapolis today -- are the coach and his emphasis on good defensive play and playing with intensity.

Last year, it was a veteran group that might have been one of the best college basketball teams of the past decade. Four starters made NBA rosters, including one of the league's best rookies, Mario Chalmers, who is starting for the Miami Heat. But they, as freshmen and sophomores, were upended in the 2006 NCAA tournament by the Bradley Braves.

Self's team this season is, outside of Butler, the youngest in the NCAA field. It returns only two players with meaningful tournament experience in Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich.

In many ways, they're similar to that 2006 Jayhawks team. The athleticism, depth, versatility and ability to defend are part of Self's formula.

Here's the difference. In 2006, Kansas came into the NCAA tournament off the high of a Big 12 tournament championship win over a very good Texas team led by LaMarcus Aldridge and P.J. Tucker. This year's team suffered a mildly surprising quarterfinal loss to Baylor in the Big 12 tournament last Thursday.

Self managed to find a silver lining in the disappointing defeat based on the his postgame comments. "Today is a reality check," Self said. "First thing we are doing, we go back and we get to the hotel. And we go to school tomorrow, make all the players walk around class tomorrow with all the other students wondering 'Why are you back here already? And then we will practice as hard as we have ever practiced the next two days."

The potential obvious positives that might come out of Kansas' early exit were increased practice time in Lawrence and a renewed emphasis on the type of energy Kansas usually plays with.

It's is a reality check that is necessary for a team that should not feel like it is defending the NCAA championship. It's not. Most of the team that won it in San Antonio last April is long gone.

Kansas' first-round opponent, North Dakota State, is a great NCAA tournament story. Five years ago, then-Bison coach Tim Miles -- who is now the head coach at Colorado State -- redshirted four freshmen in anticipation of having four seniors ready when the school's five-year transition from Division II to Division I would be complete, making them eligible for postseason play. The plan worked perfectly as NDSU won the Summit League championship. It heads up I-94 to Minneapolis to play, essentially a home game, in its first NCAA tournament.

However, the Bison did not come out of nowhere this season. In 2005-06, when 5-foot-11 Ben Woodside and his classmates were freshmen, they stunned Wisconsin at the Kohl Center and followed that up with a win at Marquette the next season. So it's a team that already has a lot of valuable experience winning games against quality teams, and they will not be intimidated by the young Kansas Jayhawks.

Woodside, a Scott Skiles clone who thrives in pick-and-roll situations, attempted a remarkable 265 free throws this season at an 84 percent clip, and he made 43 percent of his shots behind the arc. Coach Saul Phillips' team does not turn the ball over and has five key players who shoot 38 percent or better from behind the arc. And they do not foul, allowing only 17 percent of their opponents' points to come from the free-throw line.

They are a trendy upset pick over Kansas. A couple of upsets by Bradley and Bucknell are on the Jayhawks' recent tournament résumé, and North Dakota is the fifth-most-experienced team in the tournament, according to kenpom.com, behind American, Cal State-Northridge, Marquette and Utah.

Phillips' game plan has to include keeping his team in the game from "TV timeout to TV timeout." In other words, treat the game as a series of four-minute mini-games. It's mentally easier for his team to absorb that instead of thinking about playing KU for a full 40 minutes.

As the Bison stay within striking distance of Kansas, the crowd will be on their side, and it will feel like the entire state of North Dakota is in the Metrodome. Phillips hopes at that point the young Hawks will tighten up.

No. 3-vs.-No. 14 upsets are unlikely in the NCAA tournament. I don't think it will happen in this game, but it will still be a fun one to watch.

Fran Fraschilla is a college basketball analyst for ESPN. He formerly was the head coach at Manhattan, St. John's and New Mexico.



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