NEW ORLEANS — The underdog label is sort of tough to buy. Kansas has won 32 basketball games. It won a tough Big 12 Conference by two games. It spent most of the season ranked near or inside the Top 10.
These are hardly numbers associated with an average team.
The Jayhawks also will play for a national championship Monday.
I know. I know.
Bill Self has said he doesn’t know if this year marks his best job as a college coach, but you can be sure it marks his best job at giving halftime speeches. His team rallied yet again Saturday night to stun Ohio State 64-62 and clinch a spot opposite mighty Kentucky in a national title game at the Superdome that no one outside Lawrence will expect the Jayhawks to win.
Which probably means they have every chance.
"It’s a dream to play in the biggest stage that college basketball has to offer, get to play the best team in the country hands down from Day One until now," Self said. "It’s a thrill. I don’t think anybody thought we would get here. Our guys have watched Kentucky all year, listened to people talk about them. They already cleaned our clocks once (75-65 in November).
"You know, Kentucky, it has pros. But I think we have good players, too."
He certainly has resilient ones.
Kansas over the course of five NCAA Tournament games has been outscored by six in the first half and yet is plus-40 in the second. It makes sense for a team that, while not as skilled and athletic and explosive and deep as past ones under Self, is as tough as any of them.
Ohio State might have played its finest first half of the season Saturday, while the Jayhawks were awful those opening 20 minutes and trailed by nine. Crazy. Kansas couldn’t have hoped for a better position.
There is no easy way around trailing as much as it has this tournament, at rallying to beat the likes of Purdue and North Carolina. You have to come back at the defensive end. You have to crash the boards and get a ton of stops and win weird but important statistic battles such as offensive rebounding percentage. You have to get a few calls at opportune times. It all happened Saturday.
The Jayhawks shot 3-for-11 on 3-pointers, committed 17 turnovers, trailed by 13 five times and won a national semifinal. That’s pretty amazing.
They did so because as good as junior Thomas Robinson was (19 points, eight rebounds), a kid few outside the Big 12 knew about before this tournament began exposed one everyone has known about for some time.
Jeff Withey was long enough to block seven shots and make Jared Sullinger a nonfactor, to limit the Ohio State star who missed an earlier game against Kansas this season with injury to 13 points on 5-for-19 shooting. Sullinger hardly resembled the NBA lottery pick most project him to be.
They did so because a guard like Cheyenne High School product Elijah Johnson went for 13 points and 10 rebounds while fighting foul trouble, because another guard like Tyshawn Taylor had nine assists in 37 minutes, the same Taylor who is oh-for-30 on 3s in the tournament.
Read that last part again.
You know that whole business about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts … that’s Kansas, right down to the crazy-looking bird mascot.
"Give Kansas credit," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "They were fighting for their lives. Their season was on the line. We just didn’t have an edge about us to start the second half. We lost the momentum and couldn’t get it back."
It is apparent, even at this stage of a season, that few really good officials exist anywhere in the college game, and the inconsistency of calls from one semifinal to the next on Saturday was alarming.
Deshaun Thomas, the Ohio State forward and one player who could match up with Robinson, was limited to 23 minutes because of fouls. It was one of those areas where Self talks about his team making it a nonrhythmic game for the opposition, about taking others out of what they want to do most.
"That’s what we do," Self said. "That’s who we are. We certainly have to do that on Monday."
A quick suggestion: If the Wildcats lead big at halftime, stay with it and don’t turn the channel.
Self just might have one more speech in him.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from noon to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday on "Gridlock," ESPN Radio 1100 AM and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.