By Austin Lawton | @AJLawton1
Sports Capital Journalism Program
CHICAGO – Bill Self, the coach of the Kansas Jayhawks, said the lid was going to come off the basket. With the Jayhawks one victory away from their 16th Final Four appearance, it did.
The Jayhawks made 50% of their shots in the 76-50 victory over the Miami Hurricanes at the United Center.
Kansas equaled its tournament high, reached against Texas Southern on March 17, and eliminated the doubts that came from the 39.3% performance in the regional semifinal victory over Providence. Kansas’ second-half performance showed why the Jayhawks are a top-three team in the nation, shooting an impressive 59.3% and 55.6% from beyond the arc.
Kansas had previously shot 43.4% over its first three games of this year’s tournament. Self predicted that his team would find its shooting stride once again.
“And we’re still waiting for the lid to come off,” Self said the day before the game. “But we believe that will happen tomorrow.”
All-American Ochai Agbaji led the Jayhawks with 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting, his best shooting performance of this year’s NCAA tournament and best scoring and shooting performance since he scored 22 in a Big 12 tournament game against TCU. Agbaji had five rebounds and four assists and made both shots from beyond the 3-point line.
Agbaji, through three NCAA tournament games, was shooting 33% from the field and 16.7% from beyond the arc. In the previous game against Providence, Agbaji scored 5 points, a season low, and went 0-of-4 from three, also a season low.
After the game, Self addressed the concerns about his star player’s shooting by emphasizing the importance of his versatility. “I see the game maybe a little differently than a lot of folks,” Self said. “I think Ochai can play well without making shots. But I think to the public, that’s what we depend on him to do.
“So I mean, I think if you have to prove your worth, whether you play good or not, if the ball goes in the hole or not, that doesn’t really mean you’re the player you can be. Ochai has carried us all year long. And for him to not get 20 or 22 in a game does not mean he’s in a slump or anything like that.
“He has labored offensively, I think in large part because of how people have defended him. And maybe we haven’t done a good job getting him the ball. But I know now after the way we played in the second half, he’ll be full of confidence moving forward.”
Senior guard Remy Martin has led Kansas in scoring in the NCAA tournament, averaging 16.7 points. Martin scored nine points on 4-of-9 shooting, ending his five-game streak of scoring 10 or more points.
But Martin, who missed seven games due to a bone bruise in his right knee, was voted Most Outstanding Player of the Midwest Region.
“But my teammates, man, it’s really my teammates and coaches just sticking with me through the ups and downs. And just instilling confidence in me,” Martin said. “And it’s credit to them. I didn’t really know that I won. When they said my name, I didn’t know that’s what it was for. But I have the greatest teammates around me, greatest coaches. And, I mean, what more can I ask for.”
Senior forward David McCormack rose at the right time to score 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting. McCormack has started all but three games this season for the Jayhawks and put up his best shooting performance since February 1 against Iowa State.
Miami forward Sam Waardenburg fouled out with 8:11 left to play, allowing McCormack to take advantage of the size difference and score eight 8 points in the second half.
“I just do what I can to make the team better and use every opportunity to score or pass out of the post,” McCormack said. “That’s what I took advantage of that matchup.”
Junior Christian Braun contributed 12 points and 6 rebounds on 4-of-9 shooting. Braun put up a big dunk with 16:01 left to play to tie the game up at 40. With 15:27 left, Braun made an impactful three-pointer to break a 40-40 tie.
Braun’s shot gave Kansas its first lead of the second half, and was part of a 23-6 run that put the Jayhawks ahead, 57-44, with 8:57 to go.
“When I hit that 3, it was a big confidence booster for me and I’m sure the rest of the team, ” Braun said. “We just needed some energy, I thought we were flat in the first half. That shot and dunk, I know it helped me and I think it helped the team just get going.”
Braun is shooting at 39% from beyond the arc this season, which is tied with Agbaji for the highest percentage on the team. Braun passed up multiple open shots in the first half but knows to shoot whenever the opportunity is presented.
“Yes, I passed on one that was wide open in the first half. But everybody tells me that, it’s not just coach,” Braun added. “When I’m open, shoot it. I know I shoot the ball well. I’ve got to step up and knock those down, especially the team wasn’t shooting well. We needed one like that, so it was good to see one go in the hole.”