ST. LOUIS — These moments are not new for Tyshawn Taylor. The extra cameras. The dome stadiums. These Saturday afternoon interview sessions where each starter is escorted into a curtained-off room for the NCAA Tournament’s version of a 30-minute interrogation.
Taylor, Kansas’ senior point guard, is now a veteran of three Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights, and close to 140 games in a Kansas uniform. Four seasons worth of service. But that didn’t stop Taylor from sitting back and reflecting a little bit during breakfast at the team hotel on Saturday morning. Junior forward Thomas Robinson was enjoying his usual bowl of cereal, and Kansas coach Bill Self would use part of the morning to show his team game film from the program’s epic Final Four victory over North Carolina in 2008.
But Taylor was letting his mind wander. What would it feel like, he asked Robinson, if Kansas could take down No. 1 seed North Carolina when the two goliaths meet inside the Edward Jones Dome?
“I was like, ‘Dang, man, if we just get past this,’ ” Taylor said. “And then he’s like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, relax bro. Relax. Take it easy.’ ”
Robinson was having none of it. Just last season, the Jayhawks were a No. 1 seed and entering a regional final against No. 11 seed VCU. They were confident, and a little brash, delivering some pointed trash talk toward the VCU players as both teams crossed paths the day before the game.
Robinson remembers. And he’s heard the lessons this season from the stars of last year’s team, Marcus and Markieff Morris.
“The mistakes they made,” Robinson said. “How they kind of overlooked everything.”
Still, Taylor couldn’t resist — if only for a moment. His tournament thus far has been an offensive nightmare, only spared by some commendable defense and three KU victories. Taylor has made 11 of 33 shots. He’s zero for 12 from thee-point range. And if you go back to the Big 12 semifinal loss against Baylor, Taylor has missed 15 straight three-pointers.
But this is 32-5 North Carolina vs. 30-6 Kansas, the top two seeds in the Midwest Regional playing for the Final Four, the sort of game that teammate Elijah Johnson said will be playing on ESPN Classic in 12 years. These are the types of games that can define a career.
“A win could mean so much to my legacy at Kansas,” Taylor said, “and for my life in the future.”
Self will say that Taylor doesn’t need to worry about that. He just needs to play. And Robinson will say the same.
But Taylor will say that this could be the biggest game of his career. He’s the senior leader on this KU team. And the Jayhawks have had to survive two straight woeful offensive performances. KU shot 33.9 percent against No. 10 seed Purdue in the round of 32, a mark that usually signals an early exit. Kansas followed that by shooting 37.5 percent against No. 11 seed North Carolina State in a 60-57 victory on Friday night. It was an MMA fight on a basketball court. And the Jayhawks may as well have been shooting with leather gloves on.
“I think our last two games have been so close, because me and Thomas have played poorly offensively,” Taylor said, “And that’s just how the year’s been with us. And we understand that.”
After Friday’s victory against N.C. State, Taylor had a conversation with assistant coach Joe Dooley, who works as the Jayhawks’ primary shooting coach. Dooley had rewatched some game tape from earlier in the year, when Taylor’s shot was pure. Dooley told Taylor that he wasn’t following through properly. There was a slight hitch when he released his shot.
“I was kind of flicking it,” Taylor said.
Of course, Taylor’s struggles are just the most glaring issue of a team-wide slump. The Jayhawks are 13 of 67 (19.4 percent) from three-point range during the tournament. And that number comes as Kansas prepares to take the floor against North Carolina, a team with All-American candidate Tyler Zeller at center and 6-foot-11 shot-blocker John Henson at power forward. That’s close to 14 feet of wingspan in the middle, and it means Kansas will be challenged to knock down outside shots if its wants to advance to New Orleans next week for its 14th Final Four in school history. It also means much of the burden will fall on Taylor.
“I don’t want to put extra pressure on myself,” Taylor said. “But I just know that I can’t play too much worse offensively. So I’m actually looking forward to playing.”
This was Taylor on the day before Kansas-North Carolina. One moment, he was losing himself in what could be the biggest game of his career thus far. The next, Robinson was taking a break from his cereal and attempting to calm his teammate down.
“Everybody watched him mature right in front of their eyes,” Robinson said. “I think his legacy is something he doesn’t need to worry about right now. Everything from here is icing on the cake.”