It was more like an exhale than a celebration. During a timeout with two seconds left in Kansas's round of 32 NCAA tournament game against Purdue, after guard Tyshawn Taylor had thrown down a breakaway dunk to give the Jayhawks a three-point lead, the blue-and-red-clad faithful that packed Omaha's CenturyLink Center began bellowing the school fight song. It was the first real eruption from the Kansas fans, who for much of the game had been watching a familiar nightmare unfold. The Jayhawks' recent tournament history is littered with spectacular flops (see Bucknell, Bradley, Northern Iowa and VCU), and they seemed headed for yet another loss to a lightly regarded foe.
But after Kansas's great escape in Omaha, a 63--60 win over the 10th-seeded Boilermakers, coach Bill Self's most inexperienced and thinnest Jayhawks roster in years is proving to be one of his toughest. "No knock against previous teams, but this team's as resilient as any I've been on here," says senior guard Conner Teahan. These tightknit Hawks—many have tattoos that read F.O.E., short for Family Over Everything—are suddenly positioned for a Final Four run: Second-seeded Kansas faces No. 11 seed N.C. State in the Sweet 16 on Friday with a potential matchup with the Midwest region's wounded No. 1 seed, North Carolina, looming over the weekend in what should be a de facto home game in St. Louis.
Kansas's toughness comes from forward Thomas Robinson, who endured the loss of his maternal grandmother and grandfather and mother last season. A 6'10", 237-pound national player of the year finalist, Robinson was smothered by Purdue, which held him to 11 points on 2 of 12 shooting and led by 10 early in the second half. In team huddles down the stretch, Robinson screamed to teammates, "Don't worry about me. I'll hit the boards. You guys take the shots." With just more than three minutes left, guard Elijah Johnson sank the shot of the game, a three-pointer to give Kansas its first lead.
And so the Jayhawks marched on to St. Louis, where they hoped to shake their reputation as tournament underachievers. "I'm just thankful I can wear this uniform another week," Robinson said on Sunday night. "I want to hear that band and our fans singing all the way to New Orleans."