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Friday, August 1, 2014

NCAA Elite Eight: Kansas uses expectations as challenge to its place in hierarchy

By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH
The Wichita Eagle

SAN ANTONIO — The blueblood Kansas Jayhawks wore black on Saturday. They swore the look wasn’t a bold statement, but it was hard to ignore the symbolism.

They know that they are the unquestioned favorites to win the national championship, the only No. 1 seed left, the team with No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth and No. 8 seed Butler standing in the way of them and the national championship game. But they also know that they are not America’s team, so why wear the colors?

This is a KU team that understands it is a part of the establishment but hasn’t felt like it all season. The Jayhawks, 35-2 and Big 12 champions, call themselves underdogs with straight faces. This with VCU — the tournament’s ultimate Cinderella story and the team that might as well be wearing red, white and blue this afternoon in the Southwest Regional final — staring them down from across the Alamodome.

“I honestly feel like if we didn’t have a chip on our shoulder, we wouldn’t be a team,” KU guard Elijah Johnson said. “VCU, for example, has been looked over. They’ve got a chip on their shoulder. We do, too, it’s just that ours is looked at in a different light. Ours is looked at not from a respect standpoint, but from what we deserve.”

You come to Kansas, and you expect to get respect. Johnson is a sophomore, and he was brought up as a freshman in that world. Last season, the Jayhawks were the Chosen Ones, anointed as preseason No. 1, named the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed and picked by President Barack Obama to cut down the nets. It all fell apart in shocking fashion in the second round against Northern Iowa.

“I thought we were unbeatable,” KU forward Markieff Morris said, “and I think that a lot of my teammates thought we were unbeatable.”

When this season began, Kansas was picked No. 7 in the preseason polls. The Jayhawks were picked to finish second in the Big 12 behind Kansas State, which lost to them three times last season. Obviously, people thought that the Morris twins and their supporting cast were not good enough to replace the losses of Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich and Xavier Henry.

This Kansas team wasn’t handed anything.

“I think we came out and showed people how good we are,” KU guard Tyshawn Taylor said. “Proving ourselves to everybody is what we wanted to do.”

The Jayhawks won their first 18 games. They did it without the guy who was supposed to be their best player, freshman guard Josh Selby, for the first nine games. It turned out that Selby was far from their best player, and then they went off and won their seventh straight Big 12 title and the league tournament championship with him playing a small role.

Now, the floodgates have opened up on KU’s side of the bracket. And now, people are saying this same group of players should win the national championship.

“Don’t come along when we put it together,” Markieff said. “We knew what we were going to do this season. In the Big 12, we knew what we were going to do. We’re happy to be the underdogs. I wish people would still say we’re gonna lose. That’s what they thought at the beginning of the season.”

Back then, even KU coach Bill Self was hesitant to expect as much of this year’s Jayhawks as last year’s bunch. He said that they were unlikely have a record like 33-3, but he had a feeling that the 2011 team had a high ceiling.

And here they are, with a better record and a chance to become immortalized with a trip to the school’s 14th Final Four. Yet, they don't feel much love other than from their own fan base. They know that people will poke holes in anything that happens from here on out because of KU’s path: a No. 16 seed, a No. 9, a No. 12, a No. 11 and a No. 8 on the way to the title game. The Jayhawks would have the easiest road, by seed, of any national champion.

But they aren’t hearing any of it.

“We’re definitely a hungry team,” Markieff Morris said, “and we’re gonna stay hungry until the season is over for us.”

Check J. Brady McCollough’s KU blog at blogs.kansas.com/jayhawk. Reach him at jmccollough@wichitaeagle.com.

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