NEW ORLEANS – It can have twists and turns, this Road To The Final Four. Even the participants sometimes pause to marvel how the fates and the circumstances provide divergent paths that lead to the same destination.
Three Kansas players find themselves in the Big Easy this weekend. When the Jayhawks (31-6) take on No. 2 Ohio State (31-7) in Saturday's Final Four semifinal, they'll each play roles as different as their courses to reach college basketball's ultimate weekend.
Jordan Juenemann is a 6-3 senior on the Kansas roster, one of the "practice players" who rarely get in games but whose contributions help with the success of those who do. Simply put, he's a walk on who cherishes the game and feels blessed that he spends an entire season giving blood, sweat and tears for 47 minutes of playing time.
Conner Teahan, like Juenemann, is a Kansas native. In 2008, he was a freshman reserve on the KU team that won the national championship. Before he wound up as a key contributor on a Final Four team, he tried out for the Kansas football team in 2010. He would have been a senior last season but he sat out as a redshirt hoping to have an expanded role this season.
Kevin Young started his college career at Loyola Marymount, spent time at a junior-college and playing in Puerto Rico. He was headed to San Diego State when he found out that Kansas was interested. The 6-8 junior went from schools that have never played in the Final Four to one that is making its 14th appearance.
KU's "blue team" will take on the Buckeyes Saturday. The names are familiar to college basketball fans – Thomas Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor, Jeff Withey, Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson along with reserves Teahan and Young.
The "red team" is made up of the no names. Juenemann, Merv Lindsey, Christian Garrett, Niko Roberts. They've played a total of 102 minutes (garbage time) at the end of games already decided. But for hundreds of hours, the red team works with the top seven players, providing practice fodder. But without the effort of the "scrubs" the starters wouldn't improve.
"The blue team gets on us in practice if we're not playing well or playing hard," Juenemann said. "It creates a real bond on the team. We work hard to make them better but we get better in trying to do that. It's a cool thing. The seven guys everybody knows about, we wouldn't be here without them. But we're a team and the guys who push them in practice, we're a part of the team.
"Everybody has a role on the team. It doesn't matter if you're the last man or the first man. I'm not as talented as the other players. But the guys on the scout team, we accept our role. We try to make the other guys better every day in practice."
In 2008, Teahan was one of "those guys." He was a freshman on a deep and talented team that delivered Kansas is third national championship. A native of Leawood, Kan., Teahan played a few seconds in the Final Four semifinal victory over North Carolina. The circle is now complete, but it's not a perfect circle.
"It means a lot to get back here," said Teahan, who had played a total of 218 minutes in three season before developing into a valuable reserve. "Being a senior and being able to contribute, this means more than my freshman year. I was always hoping and thinking we'd be back."
The closest Kansas came to a Final Four return was last season when the Jayhawks lost in the regional final as Teahan watched as a redshirt senior. In the spring of 2010, he tried out as a quarterback with the KU football team. When that didn't work out, Teahan returned to the basketball team and is now playing for the Jayhawks in the Final Four.
"Looking back on the way I got here, a lot of things happened I wouldn't have predicted," Teahan said.
Young, a native of California, played in 2008-09 and 2009-10 at Loyola Marymount. He left that program, spent some time at San Bernadino (Calif.) Community College before signing a financial aid agreement with San Diego State. That, unlike signing a letter of intent scholarship, gave Young flexibility. Then he received a call from the Kansas coaching staff.
"They said they needed some big guys," Young said. "The tradition, the winning at Kansas ... I wanted to be a part of that. When I first got here and played with these guys, I knew these guys were special. Tyshawn pulled me aside and let me know how things were. He said, 'We win here.'"
Juenemann is from Hays, Kan. A native son, being a walk on for Kansas is as precious as a family heirloom.
"I'm just proud to be on the team," Juenemann said. "We've been in the NCAA Tournament every year I've been here. There are a lot of college players who would give anything just to be in the NCAAs once. And now we're here at the Final Four."