Updated: Mar 18
By: Chris O'Brien
For Mombo and Poppo.
The two lovebirds who met at the University of Kansas all those years ago and created one big family of crazy Jayhawks fans.
Quick note on the text - This story bounces back and forth from the final year of the streak (2017-18) to all the years that came before it. There's kind of a Godfather 2 vibe going on. I was going to put the whole book up here as one epic binge-read, but decided to split it up into two or three long parts. Enjoy and Rock Chalk!
Chapter 1 - From Roy Williams to Bill Self
The wound was still fresh.
Yes, the 2004 run to the Elite Eight helped ease the transition. It also helped that Roy Williams only took North Carolina to the Round of 32. Every Kansas fan will admit we celebrated Tar Heel losses. And yes, it was exciting to have Bill Self, this young rising star of a coach - only 40-years-old - who had now taken three different universities to the Elite Eight.
We were feeling cautiously optimistic. Whenever we had flashbacks of Roy Williams announcing his departure, or that brutal post-game interview after the Syracuse loss when we thought for a second that maybe he didn't give a sh!t about North Carolina, when those memories came back, we could just replay that first Bill Self press conference; the one where he said all the right things.
"Woke up this morning, and I'm driving to the office and I, on purpose, drove up on Naismith Drive. I've always thought, 'How cool would it be to office on Naismith Drive?' And now it actually gets to happen."
We needed to hear a coach gush like that over the tradition in Lawrence, Kansas. Needed to hear that we were beautiful again because, for the first time in our iconic basketball history, we had been dumped. Flat out dumped. Roy Williams looked at another university as a better destination. And, just like a high schooler going through their very first breakup, this whole thing was unfamiliar to us. Why would you ever leave the Phog?
So, what do you do after you get dumped? Eat a tub of ice cream while watching The Bachelor? Have a bowl of cereal in the shower while openly weeping? I mean, yes to both, but you also go out and act like you're doing ok. Doing just fine. Be the guy who posts shirtless photos on Facebook or a girl making that bikini photo her new profile pic.
In 2004-2005, we were doing a good job pretending everything was ok. We looked at the roster and said that things couldn't be better. Especially with Keith Langford, Wayne Simien, Aaron Miles all coming back for their senior seasons. Those guys had already gone to two Final Fours. Wayne had a legitimate shot at the National Player of the Year. This was an experienced group of seniors.
Maybe this could be the year...
Photo from Scott McClurg/Journal-World Photo. Included in this KUSports.com story.
Plus, Self was already showing promise as an elite recruiter. We added freshmen Darnell Jackson, Sasha Kaun, and Russell Robinson.
How fitting that the team who would start this 14-in-a-row streak began the season 14-0. We--and I want to establish this right away; I'll be using 'we' rather than 'they.' Kansas fans understand that we talk about this team as if we're one of the players. So, WE had a minor hiccup against Villanova followed by a six-game winning streak. Hard to start much better than 20-1.
On February 28th, 2005, the Oklahoma State Cowboys came into Allen Fieldhouse. We were No. 8 in the AP Poll; they were No. 4. Oklahoma State had made the Final Four the year before, and barely lost to Georgia Tech. And the Cowboys were still loaded, they had a Big Three of their own with Joey Graham, John Lucas III, and JamesOn Curry.
This game was the unofficial Big 12 Championship. Both teams were 10-3 in conference play. And you know how these games can sometimes go, a ton of hype followed by a big letdown. Not the case here. Both teams played their best games of the season. It was lights out shooting; Kansas shot 66 percent, OK State not far behind at 59 percent.
Wayne Simien scored 32 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. He also set the school record for consecutive free throws made in a row at 34. Aaron Miles hit a late-game shot to give the Jayhawks their final lead, 81-79.
It was the type of game where even the losing coach (Eddie Sutton) had nothing but good things to say about his team.
"What a great college basketball game," Eddie Sutton said. "When both teams play like that, it is a shame that one has to lose."
Eddie Sutton is a legend, retired with 806 wins, has the floor named after him at the Gallagher-Iba arena, but he finished 0-11 in Allen Fieldhouse during his time at Oklahoma State. That's what Allen Fieldhouse is all about, even legends retire without a win.
For all the other programs, Big 12 titles don't just happen every single year. Oklahoma State, for example, was looking for their first back-to-back title since the 1950s.
And there we were about ready to start a multi-decade streak.
Chapter 2 - Beating Joakim Noah and the Florida Gators + When Kevin Durant came to
2017-18 - Remember Billy Preston?
We are an optimistic fan base, always have been, always will be, but it was really hard to try and argue that this team had a Final Four or National Championship ceiling.
We lost National Player of the Year Frank Mason, the first Player of the Year at Kansas since Danny Manning. We lost freshman superstar Josh Jackson to the NBA Draft, picked No. 3 overall. Glue guy Landen Lucas, also gone. Bragg transferred. Coleby transferred. Did we have any bigs outside of Udoka? Was Mitch Lightfoot ready to play significantly more minutes? I guess this Billy Preston guy is supposed to be pretty great, but one-and-dones in the Bill Self era have been pretty hit or miss.
(pause, goes to check Preston's high school highlights).
Ok! Alright! I'm believing again! Start Preston at the 4, Doke at the 5. Graham can play the role of Mason, Newman plays the role of Graham from last year, and Vick, if he can just give us like a 75 percent Josh Jackson level, I'm sold. Preston changes the whole outlook.
These Jayhawks could win it all...
A team of freshmen and sophomores. Russell Robinson. Sasha Kaun. Darnell Jackson. Jeremy Case. New guys on campus: Mario Chalmers. Brandon Rush. Julian Wright. All of those freshmen were 5-star recruits.
A team this young is bound to have a few early season stumbles. The '05-06 season began with a rough trip to Maui where the Jayhawks went 1-2 with losses to Arizona and Arkansas. The Jayhawks started the season 3-4 and notched Bill Self's second loss in Allen Fieldhouse, a loss to an unranked Nevada team who turned out to be really good. The Wolfpack made the NCAA tournament and had a First Team All-American candidate in Nick Fazekas.
That year's Kansas team proved to be extremely coachable and played with a whole lot of heart. They went 10-0 in conference play from Jan. 21 to Feb. 21. They got their doors blown off at No. 7 Texas, 80-55, but won their next two games to split KU's second straight Big 12 regular-season title.
And, to make it even sweeter, these guys went down to Dallas and won three straight to take home the Big 12 Conference Tournament title, avenging that Texas loss with an impressive 80-68 win.
Rock Chalk Jayhawk, the Bill Self era was starting to find its stride.
2017-18 Season, Champions Classic
The Champions Classic was loaded with star talent. Duke was bringing in star freshmen Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter. Michigan State had a group of young stars Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson, and Cassius Winston. Kentucky reloaded again with their regular group of five-star freshmen.
Kansas was the veteran club. None of these teams had two seniors like Graham and Svi. Plus Vick is a junior, and Newman's 21-years-old. Four-fifths of the Jayhawk starting five can legally go to a bar after a victory; a rare feat in modern college basketball.
And yet, even with all that extra experience, we still struggled to win against a group of Kentucky Wildcats who were only six months removed from their high school graduations. Graham shot 3-of-14. Our bench only added three points. As a team, we shot just 35.3 percent!
And sure, the glass-half-full interpretation would say: it's only November. It's early. I mean this might be a good sign; we shot 35.3 percent and still beat a team ranked No. 7 in the country on a neutral court.
But we were the team that should at least be closer to our eventual ceiling. Kentucky, all of their guys are 18 and 19. They're gonna get a lot better throughout the season. Same with Michigan State and Duke. Can our veteran guys make the same type of jump? Or were we already at our ceiling?
2006 – 07
It was right around Thanksgiving. The Jayhawks were on the road, about to play in the Toyota Las Vegas Invitational championship against the ultimate opponent: The No. 1 Defending Champion Florida Gators.
There may never be another college team like the 2006-07 Florida Gators. They won the National Championship in 2006 and their core veteran guys (Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey) all came back for another season, decided against the NBA. Four juniors and a senior. All five with a ring already.
What better way to measure where we stand overall than going up against the defending champs.
Julian Wright scored 21, freshman Darrell Arthur had 19, Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush each had 13, Russell Robinson had 12.
The game went into overtime. Florida took an 80-77 lead with 1:22 left, but wouldn't score again. The Jayhawks finished OT on a 5-0 run and completed what would be their biggest win of the year.
After the victory, Bill Self's contract was renewed through 2011.
Kansas thrived in Big 12 play going 14-2, winning Self's third straight conference title. This one was even sweeter since it was the first outright title of the Self-era. The Jayhawks also won the Big 12 Conference Tournament.
And there were only glimpses at the time, but this freshman point guard Sherron Collins from Chicago seemed like he might have a chance at becoming a special player.
Oh, one more thing. We've got to talk about the
Kevin Durant game.
The NBA's age restriction forced the once in a generation talent Kevin Durant to play college basketball for a year. And if you ever wonder what a future Hall-of-Famer looks like in a complete state of flow, just go ahead and replay that KU vs. Texas first half in Allen Fieldhouse.
Durant came out on fire, scored 12 of Texas' first 18 points. The Longhorns took a commanding 18-4 lead.
The points kept piling on. Every shot going in. And it wasn't as if Kansas was playing bad defense. When a guy is seven-feet tall launching NBA threes, there's really not much you can do.
Jason King described it best in his article for ESPN:
"I thought Kansas was guarding him really well and the shots that he was making, the defenders' fingertips were inches away from blocking him. These were shots from 24, 25 feet that were pull up jumpers. He was just doing everything, especially in the first half. I never thought I would see the day that Kansas got run out of its own gym, but this guy's about to do it single-handedly."
My brother had the privilege to be at the game in the student section. He'll be telling his grandkids about that first half. How when Durant fell down with an ankle injury, 16,000 people went silent. It was as if Durant was one of our own guys. We were witnessing greatness in its purest form and to see him exit with an injury was devastating. Sure, it gave us a chance to go on a run and ultimately win the game, yes, but that didn't matter. Jayhawks fans, we love basketball as an artform, and Durant was playing the game as great as it could possibly be played.
Afterward, Bill Self praised both Durant and the home fans.
"The thing that was cool was after he goes back to get retaped after he tweaked his ankle, our fans gave him an ovation when he came back out," Bill Self said. "Where else in college basketball would you see that?"
Self, always tough on his teams, especially about defense didn't have any suggestions.
"We probably defended him above average and he got 25 in that first half," Self said. "It was one of those days when he could've got 35 or 40 in a half. He may be arguably the best player to play in Allen Fieldhouse in generations. Even Danny's on the bench saying, 'That's a bad man. That's the baddest man to play here,' and that's Danny saying that who had many big games here."
Danny Manning, Wilt Chamberlain, Jo Jo White, Allen Fieldhouse has definitely seen its fair share of greatness, but we may never see a first half to rival the Durant game.
Chapter 3 - Steph Curry, Avenging (and Forgiving) Roy Williams, and the Shot by Mario Chalmers
2018-19, Billy Preston's Car
Billy Preston didn't have Kevin Durant or even Josh Jackson type of hype, but he was a very highly ranked prospect. The type of one-and-done that can instantly make you a Final Four contender.
Unfortunately, Billy Preston didn't play at all against Kentucky. He sat on the bench in street clothes.
The announcers mentioned that it had something to do with a car accident. Preston wasn't hurt, it wasn't even a bad car accident, but when they found out what car he was driving it raised all types of questions as to how did he afford this vehicle.
And given the big news in the pre-season about Adidas scandals and FBI wiretaps and players taking money, and greasy agents, this whole thing just didn't look good. I mean, oh by the way, Kansas has the largest contract with Adidas. We had to play things safe.
And so Billy Preston sat. And sat again. And sat some more. There were no new updates anywhere on the internet (believe me, I was checking every day). Couldn't even find what type of car it was. Were we talking like a nice new Acura or a $250,000 Ferrari with an Adidas logo on the side?
The Jayhawks were 7-0 but let's keep things in perspective; we were blowing out mid-majors. How would we handle the higher competition? And what chance did we really have of making it far in the NCAA Tournament without Billy Preston?
2007 – 08, Road to the Final Four
This team had it all. The most talent since that 1997 KU squad with Jaque Vaughn, Paul Pierce, Raef Lafrentz, Scott Pollard, and Jared Haas.
Our starting five: Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson, Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson.
The bench: Sherron Collins, Sasha Kaun. We also had freshman big man Cole Aldrich who didn't play a ton of minutes but would have one of the most memorable moments of the season against North Carolina.
The Jayhawks started the season 20-0. Destroying teams. We played consistently great defense and our offense was capable of scoring in the 80's. Our first loss of the year came, sadly, at Kansas State who was led by the dominant freshman Michael Beasley.
This was the second season college basketball was feeling the effects of the NBA's age rule. The season before had the sensational play of Kevin Durant and Greg Oden, this season had a whole batch of talented one-and-done guys in Michael Beasley, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, OJ Mayo. Top programs landing a superstar freshman would become a significant theme of the next ten years.
Kansas only took two more losses by a combined four points. Split the Big 12 title with Texas (fourth in a row) and won the Big 12 conference tournament.
The Jayhawks were 34-3, made it through their first three games with relative ease. But waiting for them in the Elite Eight was a No. 10 seed Davidson.
As good as those first years had been of the Bill Self era, there were two glaring NCAA Tournament losses. Bucknell in 2005, Bradley in 2006. Would Davidson be the next double-digit mid-major to add to this list?
To thicken the plot, this double-digit mid-major just so happened to have future NBA superstar Steph Curry.
Curry was America's Sweetheart. This skinny little guy who was practically swimming in his jersey led a tiny school - I think they only have like 1,800 students - to upset victories over Gonzaga, Georgetown, and Wisconsin. All big-time college basketball programs. Curry was sensational in the tournament scoring 40, then 30, then 33.
What better way for their story to end than a Final Four berth and a win over the biggest name in college basketball. That's the story everyone wanted to see happen.
Well, everyone outside of Lawrence, Kansas.
With 54 seconds left, Curry drilled a deep three, the same kind he'd go on to make a career of hitting for Golden State, to pull the game to a way-too-close-for-comfort 59-57. Things would get even scarier after a Sherron Collins miss, the ball rolled out-of-bounds.
Davidson had it with 13 seconds left. The script was heading toward a CBS dream scenario, Curry for the win... HE GOT IT! DAVID(son) HAS SLAIN GOLIATH!!
Curry brought the ball up the court. Ten seconds, nine seconds. Brandon Rush was locked in on defense. Davidson sent the high screen. Rush got caught on the screener's foot, fell to the ground. But Mario Chalmers seamlessly switched onto Curry.
Six seconds. Five seconds. We had to be careful, Curry was obviously the major threat, but Davidson's Bryant Barr was 3-of-4 from behind the arc. Curry had no space whatsoever. Three seconds. Sherron Collins hopped over for the double-team, Curry had no choice but to pass. Richards caught it. Wide-open. For the win!
Off the backboard.
Jayhawk nation let out a huge sigh of relief and then began to party. Kansas was in the Final Four. Two wins away from a National Championship.
Side note - PTI on ESPN used this game as part of an April Fool's joke two days later. They said that because the refs miscounted the fouls on a KU player, the NCAA determined they would replay the final sixteen seconds. Something like this had recently happened in the NBA so it was pretty believable.
Kansas fans, well, we're not always the most emotionally balanced when it comes to our team. I remember sitting there in horror for thirty seconds. Are you kidding me? This would happen to us.
Then Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon put on smiles. April Fool's Day!
The Final Four in San Antonio was the first time all four Number 1 seeds made it. On one side there was a battle of young talent in Memphis vs. UCLA featuring a who's-who of future NBA stars with Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, and Russell Westbrook.
On the other side, the big one, Kansas vs. North Carolina. The first time we would see Ol Roy again.
"Forgive that guy" wasn't the f-word of choice for the majority of KU fans. Sentiments ranged from "we don't say his name in our house" to "Roy who?" It didn't help that Roy won the 2005 National Championship; the same year we went home at the hands of Bucknell.
And I'm sure five percent of KU fans might have been happy for the guy, but one hundred percent of KU fans were united for that Final Four game: we wanted that sweet revenge.
"There is absolutely no pressure," Bill Self said to the guys in the locker room before the game. "This is the week we relax and go have fun. My challenge to you tonight is you have as much fun playing as I have coaching. And if you do that we're gonna have a great time, I guarantee you that. We're playing a very good team, a team with great history, great tradition. And you know what, they're playing a very very good team, and a program with unbelievable history and tradition. You came to Kansas to play in this game."
The Tar Heels were supposed to come out and run us off the floor. And how could we ever match their star big man Tyler Hansbrough? It's hard to say there are favorites or underdogs in a Final Four of all Number One seeds, but it kind of felt like we were the underdog.
Until the jump ball. Kansas came out on fire taking an unimaginable 40-12 lead. 40-12! We were playing like the high-octane, fast-break squad.
The moment of the night, Cole Aldrich checks in, gets a few blocks and then rips an offensive rebound right out of Tyler Hansbrough's hands. Our fourth big just outmuscled Carolina's National Player of the Year.
I forgot how weirdly close this game got in the second half. With just under eight minutes to go, Kansas only had a 58-53 lead. Announcers were starting to bring up that this would be the biggest comeback in Final Four history. Greaaaattt... How much would that suck? Roy with the comeback. Another round of "Jayhawks choked" storylines. But the Jayhawks closed the game on a 26 to 13 run, final score 84-66.
This team had done enough, right? Final Four. Avenged the fan base against Roy. Hard to ask for more.
But I mean, if we're in the National Championship game anyways... might as well go for the win.
Sadly, with a couple of minutes left, it looked like this incredible season would come to an end in bitter disappointment, reminiscent of our loss to Syracuse in 2003. Just insert Derrick Rose for Carmelo Anthony.
We all know what happened next. The greatest comeback in Kansas history. 60-51 with 1:56 to go became 60-53 after an Arthur midrange jumper. Steal by Sherron Collins, three by Sherron Collins. 60-56. 1:46 to go. Five points in ten seconds.
Fast forward to 10.8 on the clock. Derrick Rose on the foul line. Makes both and it's essentially over. Misses the first. We'll have a chance... Makes the second. Have a chance to tie.
Sherron Collins rushes the ball down the court. Tripping, falling. Gets the ball out of his hands over to Mario Chalmers. Five seconds. Four seconds. Three. Mario let's it go. High arc, perfect rotation. It's good! Nothing but net! 63-63. Overtime.
Five minutes later, it was over. For the first time since 1988, the Kansas Jayhawks were National Champions. We were back on top of the world.
Side note - Roy Williams was shown on camera wearing a KU Jayhawks sticker. I remember being with my brother at his fraternity house and everyone was getting ready to boo, then we paused. Followed by cheers. There we go, Roy!
This win over Memphis was a complete baptism; a moment of full faith in the new Bill Self era and final forgiveness of ol Roy. For the first time, we could appreciate what Williams did for this program without being bitter about the ending. The wounds were healed. We could appreciate the past while believing our future would be even brighter.