Kansas exploits weakness in Salukis defense

Bill Self knew his team would have trouble scoring on Southern Illinois' stingy defense. Luckily for the Jayhawks, Brandon Rush stepped up to give Kansas an edge, writes Mark Schlabach.

Originally Published: March 22, 2007
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- It was a question that burned at Kansas basketball coach Bill Self for several hours earlier this week. Self knew his top-seeded team would have problems scoring against No. 4 seed Southern Illinois during Thursday night's semifinal game of the West Region at HP Pavilion, but Self thought he had found a play that would make it easier.

Bill Self
Paul Sakuma/AP PhotoBill Self trusted his gut and added a new wrinkle to Kansas' offense.
But Self also was concerned about disrupting his team's chemistry or giving his players too much to digest during the NCAA Tournament, especially since the Jayhawks had only one full practice before playing the Salukis in the Sweeet 16.

After hours of internal debate, Self installed the play. It turned out to be the wrinkle that saved Kansas in its 61-58 win over Southern Illinois, which left the Jayhawks one victory away from advancing to the Final Four in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.

With the Jayhawks leading 59-58 in the final minute, Kansas had the basketball and Self called timeout with 37.2 seconds to go. Self decided to run the new play, and guard Mario Chalmers dribbled the ball near the top of the key. With about 30 seconds to go, Chalmers drove the lane and passed to guard Brandon Rush. Rush leaped high over two Southern Illinois defenders and banked in an 8-foot jumper to give Kansas a 61-58 lead with 24.9 seconds left.

Salukis guard Jamaal Tatum missed an open 3-pointer with about 4 seconds to play, and then guard Tony Young missed a half-court heave at the buzzer.

"That's the biggest possession we've had on offense all year," Self said. "To beat Southern Illinois, you can't run plays. You've got to have players to make plays. I thought that was what really helped us -- we had some players step up and make plays."

Rush was the Kansas player who stepped up in the end. The sophomore from Kansas City had taken only five shots before banking in the basket that put the Jayhawks ahead for good. Rush didn't take a 3-pointer in the game; he shot 7-for-8 on 3-pointers in the first two NCAA Tournament games.

"I didn't get a good look all night," said Rush, who scored 12 points on 6-for-6 shooting. "I had to force things a little bit. Mario drove in the lane a little bit and dished to me in the lane. I saw an opening and drove and made the shot."

While scouting the Salukis earlier this week, Self said he found what he thought was a slight hole in Southern Illinois' tenacious and swarming defense: The Salukis were short across the perimeter. Tatum and sophomore Bryan Mullins are each 6-foot-2, and Young is barely 6 feet. Since Rush is 4 inches taller than any of the Salukis' guards and can handle the basketball as well as anyone, Self believed he had an advantage.

Brandon Rush
Paul Sakuma/AP PhotoBrandon Rush came up big for the Jayhawks in the final minutes.
"We have a 6-6 athlete," Self said. "Instead of running plays, we had to figure out a way to get him in the middle of the paint, where he can just jump over them and get a shot. He did a really good job of doing that because, you know, he's bigger than those guys. That was very important. … This was going to be a game where we weren't going to get a ton of wide-open perimeter looks, and out best offense was put to our head down and drive it."

The Jayhawks certainly hadn't had to work harder for points at any time this season. With the Salukis hounding them on the perimeter and pressuring the basketball whenever possible, Kansas shot only 1-for-6 on 3-pointers. The Jayhawks made 23 3-pointers in the first two games of the NCAA Tournament, a 107-67 win over No. 16 seed Niagara in the first round and 88-76 victory over No. 8 seed Kentucky in the second round.

"I thought it would be the first one to 60 wins," Self said.

The Jayhawks reached 60 points first and, remarkably, had to shoot 60 percent from the field to do it. With junior center Sasha Kaun and sophomore forward Julian Wright struggling against Southern Illinois' rugged post players, and with the Jayhawks taking so few 3-pointers, there was only one other way for them to score: their guards had to penetrate to the basket.

"Every one of us was thinking somebody had to take over at some point," Rush said. "I'm glad I was the one that stepped up to do it."

Rush, Chalmers and point guards Russell Robinson and Sherron Collins seemed flustered by Southern Illinois' pressure early in the first half. The Jayhawks committed 10 turnovers in the opening 10 minutes, then turned it over on three straight possessions early in the second half, as the Salukis took a 33-27 lead with about 16 minutes left.

"This was a different type of defense," Self said. "This is a swarming defense. … Whoever plays Southern is not going to look good offensively -- whoever plays 'em. It doesn't make a difference who they're playing. What you have to do is make sure that you defend them because everybody gets so hung up on attacking them, you've got to make sure you don't let them score easily."

The Jayhawks didn't and proved they can play any style of game in the process. While Kansas might not have looked its best, beating Southern Illinois in a slugfest was important, Self said, especially with UCLA waiting in the regional finals.

"This is a grind-it-out region," Self said. "As the games get closer and the scores go down the further you get into the NCAA Tournament, this was a good game for us to play."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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