LAWRENCE, Mo. – Fearlessly driving to the basket and making almost 60 percent of his shots, Kansas point guard Tyshawn Taylor is playing awfully well for somebody who was in danger of losing his job.
Or was he? Taylor thought he was. So did just about everybody else who follows the Jayhawks. Suspended for two games and then benched for a couple of more, Taylor seethed as sophomore Elijah Johnson seized an unexpected opportunity to run the offense and coach Bill Self publicly declared it may be time for a change.
A chastened Taylor seems to have cleaned up his act and he has certainly elevated his game, particularly on defense, at the most critical point in the season.
It may turn out to be Self's masterstroke of the entire NCAA tournament,
"He's always had the talent," said Self. "Now he's got his confidence back."
Since Self reinstated him and returned him to the starting lineup, Taylor has played the best basketball of his career, scoring in double figures while averaging almost 15 points. In tournament wins last week over Boston University and Illinois, the 6-foot-3 junior averaged 11.5 points and 5.5 assists and shot 57 percent.
The top-seeded Jayhawks, who meet 12th-seeded Richmond on Friday in the Southwest Regional semifinals, have always had a powerful inside game and reliable shooting from the floor. Their most inconsistent position throughout another 30-win season was at the point.
But if Taylor keeps up the pace, Kansas will be an even tougher draw the rest of the way than many might have thought a few weeks ago.
Taylor makes no effort to disguise his motivation.
"Who doesn't love to start? I'd been starting here for a while," he said.
He finally got his job back in the Big 12 title game against Texas. As though in celebration, he rolled up 20 points, four rebounds, five assists and a steal in an 85-73 revenge victory that sent the Jayhawks into the NCAA tourney on a nice, sweet roll.
"Coach wants me to be aggressive and that's exactly what I'm trying to do," he said.
Self has refused to disclose exactly what got Taylor in trouble last month. If benching him after the reinstatement was a psychological ploy, it certainly helped that Johnson was able to rise to the occasion.
"I got in some trouble and Elijah came in and played well and we didn't miss a beat as a team," Taylor said. "We were still winning. We were still playing well. Defensively, coach said we were better. So that definitely opened my eyes a little bit. I thought, 'I've got to come back and be a presence on the defensive end.'"
A big smile crosses Taylor's face when asked if perhaps his coach was playing mind games.
"I think so," he said. "I sat two games as my punishment. When I came back I didn't start right away. but I kept a positive attitude. I was working hard in practice throughout the whole time. He told me I had a good attitude and I would be fine if I just stayed positive. And that's exactly what I did. When he called on me to play, I played. That's what happened."
Like any good point guard, Taylor has been creating plays for his teammates.
"He was terrific in Tulsa," Self said of the early round victories. "I thought the second half against Illinois he controlled the whole game. The (Morris) twins got a lot of credit for getting the ball in tight. But look who got it to them."
Self said he never worried that benching Taylor would cause his attitude to go south.
"Not at all, because he cares," he said. "He cares a lot. He's a good kid and his heart's in the right place. Sometimes he just makes some immature decisions that come back to bite him. But it's not because he doesn't care.
"My thinking on that was that was something that would get his attention, and it has, in a very positive way."