By In Stuff

Anatomy of a comeback … and collapse

When Kansas led Michigan by 11 with four and a half minutes left, the Jayhawks seemed to be just about the least likely team in America to blow the lead. This was a team that started four seniors. This was a team hardened and forged by years of winning tough road games in the Big 12. This was a team coached by Bill Self, who has been on both sides of this situation so many times there seemed no surprises left.

Anyway, Michigan did not seem capable of a comeback, not on this day. The Jayhawks had held a steady lead from the start. The Wolverines had done surprising work just keeping the game relatively close — all game they had seemed like the little brother swinging punches at the air while the older brother holds him off with one arm. It just seemed a matter of the clock running out.

Of course, it didn’t happen that way.

4:04 left: Kansas’ Travis Relaford had ball stripped away by Michigan freshman Mitch McGary.

There was something off about the way Kansas came in. Heck, the game began with senior Elijah Johnson committing a flagrant foul by hitting McGary in the general groin area. People will argue, I suppose, whether Johnson fully intended to hit McGary in the general groin area — it was only that sliver of doubt that prevented Johnson from being kicked out of the game. Before the game, senior Jeff Withey had apparently talked about how small McGary was (he’s 6-foot-10) and how he expected Kansas to dominate inside. It was all very strange and not very helpful at all.

It’s as if they didn’t understand that McGary, though only a freshman, shows the sorts of tendencies that have already made him beloved at Michigan and will, over time, make him one of the most despised and feared players in the Big 10 — he does all sorts of little things that tear out opponents hearts. It’s the Bill Laimbeer stuff, the Dennis Johnson stuff, in baseball the A.J. Pierzynski stuff, — he strips away a pass, he grabs a loose ball, he steals an offensive rebound, he tips in a ball, he already seems to have a particular knack for staying in the moment and making the winning play.

Remember that scene in “The Usual Suspects” when Chazz Palminteri says to Kevin Spacey, “I’m smarter than you. I’ll find out what I want to know, and I’ll get it from you whether you like it or not?” Yeah, poking at McGary kind of felt like that.

3:55 left: Michigan’s Trey Burke missed a three-point shot. Teammate Glenn Robinson III grabbed the rebound. Robinson missed a shot. McGary grabbed the offensive rebound (another play!), the ball was passed around and it ended up in the hands of Tim Hardaway Jr. He was fouled and made one of two free throws. KANSAS 70, Michigan 60.

Michigan was beginning to out-hustle Kansas. This would play a major role in the final four minutes.

3:29 left: Elijah Johnson had ball stripped away by McGary (yet another play!). Michigan quickly worked the ball around and McGary got the ball underneath and scored (we’ll stop putting stuff in parentheses for McGary). KANSAS 70, Michigan 62.

2:54 left: Kansas passed the ball around beautifully and found senior Kevin Young underneath the basket. It looked like he would try a reverse layup but instead he made a brilliant little tip pass to Withey who slammed. KANSAS 72, Michigan 62.

Looking back, I suspect Kansas’ players thought this would be the clincher. It sort of felt that way. They had a double-digit lead, less than three minutes left, the huge Kansas crowd in Cowboys Stadium was roaring (Michigan players talked about this feeling like a road game), this thing seemed to be over from the outside looking in. The way Kansas played the last three minutes, you can’t help but wonder if it looked that way on the inside looking out too.

2:31 left: Hardaway missed a jumper. Robinson got the offensive board — Michigan was playing with the energy of the desperate — and the ball worked back to Hardaway who missed another jump shot. This time Elijah Johnson got the rebound. You could almost hear the deep breath release on the Kansas side. Here Johnson made what I think was the single most devastating play of the game for Kansas.

2:24 left: Johnson dribbled the ball too far in and then tried to pass the ball back out. The ball was tipped away by Robinson, who outran Kansas players for it and dunked on the breakaway. KANSAS 72, MICHIGAN 64.

Everything Elijah Johnson did here — absolutely everything — seemed wrong. He dribbled fast into the Michigan front court, even though Kansas needed only to take some time off the clock. He dribbled into the teeth of Michigan’s defense, even though there was clearly no opening there. He did not call timeout when he got in trouble, even though Kansas had timeouts. He passed the ball back toward the half court stripe, even though it was a reckless pass that could not lead to anything good. This single play was pure panic and it led to a dunk and a Michigan sense of hope. Bill Self probably should have realized this and called timeout. Instead …

2:02 left: Johnson, perhaps still in a fog from his turnover, seemed to lose all sense of time. He was caught by a 10-second violation when he could not get the ball across half court in time. You almost never see THIS kind of 10-second violation. Michigan didn’t trap him. They didn’t double team him. He simply let precious seconds tick away, and then, there was some tough defense that stopped him before he could make it across the line. It was as if the batteries on his inner alarm clock had run out.

Elijah Johnson is a good player. He has been through pretty much everything in his four years at Kansas, he has played just about every role, he has made many big plays in big moments. But something about this moment overwhelmed him.

1:55 left: McGary again — this time he was open under the basket he made a little layup. KANSAS 72, MICHIGAN 66.

And now, yes, everybody understood that it was a game. One minute of clock-time earlier, it was not a game. Not a competitive one. But Michigan’s hustle, the Wolverines playmaking along with Kansas’ trepidation and lack of energy had turned everything around. Bill Self called a timeout. You could lip-read his word: “Unbelievable.”

1:22 left: Travis Relaford got fouled by McGary as he drove hard to the basket. This was a break for Kansas. McGary definitely got all ball on the block — Steve Kerr thought it was a clean play, and Marv Albert tended to agree. You could argue that McGary did hit Relaford pretty hard with the body. The point is not whether it was a good call, though. The point is that it could have gone either way. This one went Kansas. Relaford made both free throws. KANSAS 74, MICHIGAN 66.

1:16 left: Burke made a long three-point shot. KANSAS 74, MICHIGAN 69.

No comeback/collapse of this magnitude can happen with one or two plays. It has to be an astonishing series of heroics and mishaps, good and bad bounces, big plays that nobody will remember later. Carlton Fisk’s homer would never have happened except for Bernie Carbo’s three-run homer, and George Foster’s great throw to the plate and numerous other things. But, inevitably, someone will have to step up and do something extraordinary. Trey Burke, the Big 10 player of the year, seemed to understand that this last bit was his job. He did not make a single shot in the first half. Michigan coach John Beilein had told him to look for his shot. It was his time.

41 seconds left: Kansas Ben McLemore missed a driving shot.

There are many people who believe McLemore will be the first pick in the NBA Draft. He will definitely be a very high pick. He has amazing talent — Self calls him the most talented player he’s ever coached. He glides. He can get off his shot seemingly whenever he wants. When his confidence soars (and there were times in this game when his confidence was soaring) he’s an absolute force of nature.

But throughout this tournament, McLemore had often looked lost and discouraged. People offered numerous theories about it, but nobody really knows — not even McLemore. Everything happens so fast in college basketball. McLemore’s father was a playground legend in St. Louis … but he disappeared from Ben’s life. His older brother, Keith, is in jail serving a long sentence after two shooting incidents. Ben grew up in a tiny home often without heat. He followed his basketball talents. He played at three different high schools, was declared ineligible for his freshman season as a partial qualifier, and not long after that told the Lawrence World Journal’s Tom Keegan that his best day is every single day he’s on campus at Kansas.

Then, suddenly, he’s on national television, he’s playing in front of millions, he’s got NBA scouts breaking down his every move, he’s got countless people relying on him, he’s got countless critics looking to call him a fraud, he’s driving to the basket with a chance to put the game away. Of course, a player can’t think about these things or they’ll never succeed. They must remove all this from their minds. They must live inside the moment. They must try, anyway.

33 seconds left: Tim Hardaway missed a three-point shot. There was a scramble for the ball. McLemore seemed to have the best chance to simply fall on the ball — Kansas had the possession arrow. Instead Robinson took the ball away, and he hit a difficult reverse layup. KANSAS 74, MICHIGAN 71.

“Seasons,” Bill Self would say, “usually come down — if you have a pretty good team — to one possession.”

21 seconds left: Johnson made two free throws. KANSAS 76, MICHIGAN 71.

Even with all the fury on the Michigan side and all the panic on the Kansas side, it STILL seemed like the Jayhawks would win when Elijah Johnson stepped to the line and swished two free throws.

14 seconds left: Burke drove to the basket and made an open layup. KANSAS 76, MICHIGAN 73.

The Jayhawks were clearly defending the three-point shot. Burke realized that and pierced through the defense and scored easily.

I think this was a brilliant and game-saving play by Burke … and another blunder by Kansas. It is often said by announcers that the worst thing you can do here is foul because it stops the clock. I’ve heard that so many times that I never really questioned it — now I will. I don’t think it’s true, at least not in this situation. i’m not saying you WANT to foul. I am saying, though, that allowing an uncontested layup in seven seconds seems worse to me than fouling. An uncontested layup also stops the clock and it gives the team two easy points. At least if you foul the player has to make both free throws.

13 seconds left: Elijah Johnson was fouled. He missed the front end of a one-and-one.

Everything about the way Michigan ran the final minute was perfect — John Beilein is one of the best chalkboard coaches in America, and it showed. Michigan only allowed one second to expire after Burke’s made layup before the Wolverines fouled Johnson. They had not used up their fouls earlier in the game, so Johnson was forced to shoot a one-and-one. When he missed, Hardaway grabbed the rebound and got the ball into the hands of Burke. It was, as the cliche goes, just the way you draw it up.

4 seconds left: Trey Burke made amazing 28-foot three-pointer. KANSAS 76, MICHIGAN 76.

When the game ended, many people would blame Bill Self for not fouling before Burke could get off the shot. This seems to me classic second-guessing and, I think, wrongheaded. Let’s say Kansas fouls Burke with eight or nine seconds left, which is what we’re talking about here. OK, now what? Burke is an 80% free throw shooter, and he was locked in, so let’s just assume he makes both free throws.

And … now what? Kansas STILL was in the one-and-one. You assume Michigan fouls immediately, and would you REALLY want a Kansas player on the line with six or so seconds left shooting a one-and-one with the Jayhawks up only a point? I wouldn’t. A foul there and Kansas legitimately could have lost the game in regulation.

That’s not to say that Kansas and Self escape second-guessing. Self admitted afterward — the Jayhawks defended the play terribly. One defender got picked out of the play, another did not switch and Burke got a good look. It was a very long look, sure, and this is not to take away anything from Trey Burke making a ridiculous 28-foot shot to tie a game with four seconds left.

But you can’t give him a clean look at that shot. You just can’t. Burke might be the best player in America. He’s a great shooter. You don’t want to give him a comfortable look from 25 feet or 30 feet or 40 feet or 50 feet away. You don’t want to let him get his feet set, basket clear sight, no way. You don’t want to just hope he misses. Not Trey Burke.

Of course, he didn’t miss. When Kansas’ Nadir Tharpe missed his three-pointer — it wasn’t a bad look either, actually, but he missed it — the game went to overtime. Kansas wouldn’t play well in the overtime. Burke would play great. And then game ended in more chaos when Kansas, trailing by two, had Elijah Johnson drive toward the basket. He seemed to realize that he was too far behind the backboard, he passed the ball wildly back to Tharpe for a wicked off-balance three pointer and Kansas lost. “Obviously we didn’t do a very good job on that last possession,” Self said, knowing he was understating things.

But the game wasn’t lost on that one play just like the game wasn’t won when Burke made his long three-pointer (or his even longer three in overtime). It was, instead, a stunning series of plays made by Michigan and not made by Kansas.

John Beilein would say: “The ball bounced our way down the last few minutes, and we keep on playing.”

Bill Self would say, “This will be a tough one to get over for a long time.”

That’s the NCAA Tournament.

24 Responses to Anatomy of a comeback … and collapse

  1. yoyodyne says:

    It’s not 2nd guessing at all to say they should have obviously fouled Burke with under 8 seconds, say 5-6 to play. You had to double teamed him at a minimum to make it easier to foul or force him to pass and take more time off the clock – the way Indiana denied Wyatt the ball in the Temple game. Also that prevents one guy from getting picked off.

    The odds are only 5-3 that Burke will make both FT. Take another second+ off the clock for fouling and Kansas will be up somewhere btw 1-3 pts with under 4 seconds left, even IF Burke makes both.
    If KU misses their final FT, Mich will have to get the ball upcourt *after* corralling the rebound, and shoot a 35-40-footer as time expires. Watch any game where a missed FT clangs off the rim with 4 secs left, it’s nearly impossible to get a better look inside 35′.

    Bill Self, and smart CBB fans, knew all this ahead of time because Calipari made the EXACT SAME mistake against him in their title game. And lost. In Overtime.

    Self has underperformed almost every tournament but one, and poor coaching decisions like this one are the reason. Giving Burke an open 28-ft for OT is inexcusable.

    [Even last year they barely beat an injured UNC team that had to start a walk-on frosh PG, in a game that never should have been close.]

    • Rob Smith says:

      “Giving Burke an open 28 ft for OT is inexcusable”. What? It’s a 28 footer. The best shooters make about 20% of shots from this distance. Definitely a second guess & sour grapes from a Kansas fan. You definitely do not foul in that situation. The correct percentage play is to make them make a deep and/or contested three (preferably both, of course). But, when you play the percentages, sometimes an 80% play goes against you. A guy makes a crazy shot. That’s what happened. Nothing more.

  2. yoyodyne says:

    Agree that Beilein is a great coach, and Mich did everything right to win AND that giving Burke the free layup under 15 seconds seems like another error as well.

    • Rob Smith says:

      I agree that giving up an uncontested layupt in this situation is a poor play. You have to at least make him make a shot. Giving a free two points and not allowing any clock to run is just a poor play.

  3. Chemo says:

    Bill Self is a great coach and Kansas is lucky to have him. That said, he has coached Kansas for 10 years, and seven times the Jayhawks have failed to live up to their seed — often spectacularly so (Bucknell, Iowa State). At Illinois, he was upset two out of three seasons. So when you say that this comeback was unlikely in part because Kansas had Bill Self at the helm… well, I disagree.

    • Matthew says:

      I tend to not comment on this level of fan-dom but really? I mean, really?

      Self is clearly one of the two or three best coaches of his generation, he has a national title and he puts you in the Elite Eight every other year or so. When you are a one, two or three seed every year it becomes impossible to “live up to your seed” every year in a single elimination tournament.

    • KHAZAD says:

      I’m not even a KU fan, but that’s crazy. Bill Self ALWAYS has a high seed because his teams are 275-50 in the regular season. They never have a down year. KU is 25-9 in the tournament in his tenure. There are about 300 schools that wish they had won 25 tournament games in the last 10 years. It is not just at Kansas either. He made the tournament 5 consecutive years before coming to Kansas, coaching at Tulsa and Illinois, and went 10-5 in those years.

      The list of coaches with 35 career tournament wins is not very large, and Self is only 50. The list of coaches with a winning percentage over .700 in the tournament is even smaller.

      If you can’t fully appreciate a great coach like Self you don’t deserve him.

    • Chemo says:

      I am also not a KU fan, and like I said, Self is a great coach and Kansas is lucky to have him. I merely pointed out that his teams have always been prone to bizarre upsets. I think that’s hard to argue.

    • Also, they never lost to Iowa State. And if they had, it wouldn’t be spectacular because Iowa State is IN the Big 12, which means Kansas could only play them late in the tournament. Probably you mean Northern Iowa.

  4. Joe says:

    No question Kansas gagged it up. And that’s fantastic!

  5. Jeff says:

    All year long I wondered how Missouri could give up so many late leads. It seemed impossible. Nice to know we’re not the only ones who can pull it off

  6. jim louis says:

    The phrase “UNDER-PERFORMED IN THE TOURNAMENT” needs to be forever banished. With exception maybe to 16 and some 15 seeds, there are not any easy wins. Add to that the immense pressure on players on the higher-rated team, and the loosey-goosey, care-free attitude of the underdog…I’d argue that many times, being the “underdog” is preferable. Wins in the NCAA Tournament, no matter the opponent, are big. Compare Tom Izzo’s (considered to be an “over-performer”) and Bill Self’s records in the NCAA Tournament. They both are approaching 40 wins with around 15 losses. The only difference (besides Izzo being to more Final Fours), is that Izzo has had years where he got lower seeds, and wasn’t able to get an “UNDER-PERFORMANCE” label. Self gets that label because EVERY year he finishes first in his conference. KU haters ignore the fact that Self has OVER-performed many times during a season, always earning a top 2 or 3 seed. The end of the Michigan game was a perfect storm for the Wolverines and an absolute torturous heart-breaker for KU fans. You’re right Joe…that’s the NCAA Tournament.

    • Rob Smith says:

      I think the issue is not Kansas “Haters”, but more Kansas “crazy fans”. The people who are all over Self for not fouling (which is crazy) and not having the correct defense to stop a 28 footer (that shot is almost always available to anyone crazy enough to take it) are most likely Kansas fans. Those of us who are impartial don’t see problems with the coaching. Now, the players (under pressure) made some very poor plays down the stretch…. and there is, as any coach knows, no way to coach every situation as it unfolds in a game. And these are, after all, college kids. This isn’t the NBA where players are getting paid millions and invite the scrutiny from the crazy fans. Just watched Duke go down & you can’t tell me that Coach K told his team to constantly go one on one and jack up poor percentage contested shots. And, btw, start ignoring Plumlee who was the only guy scoring. But, that’s what they did. Is that Coach K’s fault too?

  7. Kansas City says:

    It is obvious Self is a great coach. It also is obvious he did a bad job at the end of regulation. Interestingly, he could not even explain his thinking afterward. He was off by four seconds in his recount of the game – he thought there were 8 seconds left after the Burke shot, not four seconds.

    Self needed to call a timeout prior to Johnson’s missed free throw and set up full court pressure defense if he missed. Instead, he actually had his guys back off and allow Burke to travel down court unpressured. The key is pressure defense that includes a willingess to take a foul in the forecourt. You don’t have to foul, but you have to play such pressue defense to avoid a 3 that you are willing to take a foul. And, contrary to Joe’s thinking, it also would be better to just foul than to allow the team to take a 3.

    Incredible that Self repeated the Calipari mistake that gave Self a shot at the championship. KU got the ball with 10.8 seconds left. Michigan got the ball with 12.6 seconds left. If anything, Calipari’s team played more pressure defense than Self’s team.

    I have some sympathy for the kid who did not rush Burke, since Burke was so far out. But again, Self has to have his kids ready to put full court pressure on the ball.

    It also is interesting that the ref swallowed his whistle when a moving screen just before the Burke shot produced two guys sprawled on the floor (one being the ill fated Johnson). At the time, I thought it was okay, but technically, there had to be a foul on one guy or the other. I wonder if the post game review of the ref’s work on the play criticizes, praises or ignores the no-call (the web of silence that condones when refs swallow their whistles at the end). Anyone know the answer to that?

  8. Kansas City says:

    Self said “no team fouls wiht 12 seconds left” in his post game explanation. Of course, that is an after the fact rationale by a guy who knew (probably) he made a mistake. No one is saying foul with 12 seconds left. Putting pressure on the ball would have reduced 12 seconds to about 6 seconds when just about every coach would foul.

    Self and most coaches get away with this type of bad strategy because the long 3 is only made 20 to 30% of the time. The issue is what can the coach due to reduce the 20 to 30% chance of OT? The answer is full court pressure and willingness to foul.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Do you think it more or less likely that a player will make two free throws or make one 28 footer. The percentages clearly say the 28 footer is a long shot. Making two free throws under pressure, while not easy, is done all the time. If they had fouled and lost in OT, I guarantee the decision to foul would have been rightly second guessed.

    • yoyodyne says:

      Your reply is absurd, and comparison inept as Michigan was down THREE, not 2. I’ll take the ~60% chance of Burke making 2 FTs and being down 1, while Kansas has the ball, under 5 seconds; over the 30% chance of OT. A good Kansas FT shooter is going to have the same odds as Burke given the time and situation, so the game is likely to be Kansas up 3 with < 4 seconds left. On Friday night, Kansas head coach Bill Self wondered — “probably a bonehead play by me.”

  9. jim louis says:

    Kansas City, hindsight’s always 20/20. Why can’t it be the players fault? Self trusted that his seniors could blanket Burke. They didn’t. Yeah, NOW it’d be cool if Self told his players to foul Burke before he shot. Either way, the dude nailed an improbable shot. Give Michigan credit.

    Did Self tell BMac to miss an easy running layup? Or the players to not get the loose ball in a critical late possession? Or EJ to make 3 to’s? Or EJ to miss the front-end of a 1-on-1? Or tell EJ to, in OT, to pass up a driving layup?

    It’s the type of stuff that happens every so often in the NCAA when one group kids play another group of kids. I guess Calipari’s crappy coaching is why KU made one great play after another to beat Memphis? Or when Laetner hit an amazing turn-around years ago at the buzzer, it was because the opponent’s coach didn’t do his job?

    • Kansas City says:

      Jim Louis,

      You’re missing the point. Sure, players make plays and make mistakes. The issue is whether there were game tactics that Self could have directed at the end of the game that would have increased the likelihood of a win. If you are objective, you would say sure. Self should have ordered full court pressure on the ball and aggressive defense to the point of taking a foul rather than allowing a 3 point shot. It is not hindsight. For goodness sake, Calipari made a comparable mistake five years ago to hand Self a national championship. You suggest Self told his guys to “blanket Burke.” He did not even claim that. And his guys dropped back off Burke. Self should have called a timeout before Johnson’s free throw and set up pressure defense and the foul if necessary to prevent a 3.

      This does not mean Burke does not get credit for a great shot. Or other players do not get credit or blame, if you also want to disect those plays.

  10. Kansas City says:

    You’re missing that making two free throws does not put the game into OT. Only the 3 pointer puts the game in OT.

  11. If you watched the final 2 minutes of Indiana @ Michigan, to clinch the Big 10 regular season title, you’ll see the exact opposite. Michigan doing everything wrong; Indiana doing everything right. And luck swinging.

    Can’t help but think that game taught Michigan something.

  12. Owen Ranger says:

    Elijah Johnson can be a fantastic player, but he can also be stupefyingly bad at times, and the end of this game was one of those times. Did he forget that Kansas only needed two points to tie the game? Why pass the ball out to Tharpe (the worst player on the floor for Kansas), who was 1-8 on the day? I was also surprised that Kevin Young wasn’t on the floor for that last possession. Yeah, he can’t create his own offense at all, but he had made all six of his shots, and always seems to be in the right place at the right time.

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