Updated: Mar 18, 2020
By: Chris O'Brien
This is a historical look back at the 14-year streak of Big 12 conference titles. The format bounces back and forth from closely monitoring the 2017-18 season (the final year of the streak) to chronicling all of the seasons and players that came before and made the streak what it was. The streak in total may have been perfect, but every season had its share of ups and downs. I highly recommend starting with Part 1 before diving here into Part 2.
The Sprint Center isn't technically our homecourt. But it's pretty damn close.
Any game KU plays in Kansas City is in front of a crowd consisting of around 90-95 percent KU fans. And, as we know from decades of experience, Kansas doesn't lose at home.
And yet there we were losing again in the Sprint Center. Let's run through the recent list. Oregon in the Elite Eight the year before. TCU in the first round of the Big 12 tournament. Now Washington this year. Washington??
An unranked Washington team who wasn't even predicted to finish Top Five in the Pac 12. Their zone defense shut down our three-point shooting, holding our guys to 5-of-20 from behind the arc. Graham finished with just three points, Svi with eight.
Maybe the Sprint Center should be viewed like a road game. Especially Graham, that place is his kryptonite.
I tried to justify it. I remember in high school there was one gym that I played horribly in, every single time. It turned me into the guys in Space Jam after the aliens took their talent. And, honestly, it wasn’t a bad thing because I could superstitiously rationalize, “Well, as long as I’m not playing in that gym, I’ll be fine.” Maybe Graham could do the same with the Sprint Center?
All I know is we need this Preston situation worked out. Fast. Without him, I don't know if we can keep this streak alive.
2008-09: Rebuilding, Bill Self style
This was an unfamiliar feeling as a KU fan. A season with no pressure. Playing with house money.
I mean, come on, Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush, Sasha Kaun, Darnell Jackson, Darrell Arthur, Russell Robinson were all gone. We lost five NBA players. Plus it took 20 years in between banners the last time, winning back-to-back wasn't even on the mind. This would be a rebuild. Get to the tourney, maybe a Sweet 16 berth, that's good enough for me.
Sherron Collins (junior) and Cole Aldrich (sophomore) were now the veterans of the team. They were joined by a powerful recruiting class: Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Travis Releford, Tyshawn Taylor.
KU started 11-4 in non-conference play, falling out of the Top 25. But then the Jayhawks rallied off eight in a row in the Big 12. Finished 14-2 in conference, No. 9 in the AP poll.
Kansas landed a No. 3 seed and made a run to the Sweet 16. Self's squad put up a good fight against Michigan State, a team that went on to be national runner-up with a star freshman named Draymond Green.
So much for a rebuilding year. We still won the Big 12 outright, landed a top-three seed. This theme would continue, with Bill Self there are no down years.
The Jayhawks could bounce back from the disappointing loss to Washington with a win over another Pac 12 opponent. Arizona State was off to a great start, undefeated, already a win over a top-tier Xavier squad.
ASU was good but they were good through their guard play, not big men. We should be able to handle that. This was a chance to notch a quality out of conference win to pair with wins over Kentucky and Syracuse.
But Kansas couldn't guard at all. We gave up 58 second-half points on our HOME floor! Can't blame it on the Sprint Center. The Sun Devils pulled off the 95-85 win. We were ranked No. 2 at the time, the Washington loss was earlier in the week so hadn't hit the voting yet. But after this week of disastrous PAC 12 speed dating, we didn't even look like a Top 25 team.
This loss had me worried because, obviously, the size of teams like Michigan State, Arizona, or Duke would be a problem for us, but I assumed we could handle elite guards. Apparently, this wasn't the case. So now add Villanova and Xavier - both with great guard play - to the list of teams I don't think we could beat.
And sure, that's the big picture, me dreaming of Final Fours. But this year, there was a lot to fear in the conference. The defensive pressure of West Virginia and this rising star Trae Young over at Oklahoma. The Big 12 title felt like it was beginning to slip away and we were not even in conference play.
After the Washington game, and a couple days before the Arizona State game, I read a story by Gary Bedore titled, “Bill Self visits granddaughter in Texas, prepares for KU game against Arizona State.”
Did the granddaughter visit soften him up? Make him feel warm and fuzzy about his team? Not at all.
“You are replacing Frank with somebody not near as competitive as Frank (Devonte Graham). You are replacing Josh with someone not near as competitive as Josh (Lagerald Vick). And you are replacing Landen with somebody who doesn’t know how to be competitive yet (Udoka). Those aren’t negatives. Those are just facts. We had 2 1/2 dogs last year. Landen was close to being a full one.”
(quote from Bedore story)
Or how about:
“You look at personality and whatnot, we’ve got some really nice young men. I don’t know that anybody, first thing they said after playing Frank or Josh was, ‘Those are some nice young men.’ I don’t think that’s what they said normally. I think that’s probably how other people look at us now,” Self said.
(quote from Bedore story)
2009-10 Sherron's Senior Season
What a season!
Started No. 1 in the pre-season polls, held onto that top spot for 14 games. All the way to January 10th when we lost at Tennessee.
And talk about milestones. Bill Self wins his 400th career game. He hit his 200th win at Kansas, the fastest coach in KU history to do so. The Jayhawks won their sixth straight Big 12 title, a "feat that hadn't been accomplished in a BCS conference since John Wooden's UCLA Bruins."
Which is incredible, but man, if we only knew this streak wasn't even halfway through...
The season was filled with individual achievements. Sherron Collins set the record for winningest Jayhawk in a four-year span. Cole Aldrich broke Greg Ostertag's record for blocks in a season.
Or how about beating Kansas State three times! This was Kansas State's best season, they finished Number 7 in the AP Poll but we remained the big brother. We finished even better than our record in '07-08, at 32-2 overall, 15-1 in conference play. Landed the Number 1 overall seed.
Only took us two games to lose our first Big 12 matchup. The second loss in the Phog. Texas Tech dominated the game from start to finish, winning 85-73. Add Texas Tech to the list of teams that might end the streak.
On the season, Kansas shoots something like 40 percent of their total shots from three. It’s kind of like the college version of the Houston Rockets. It’s sporadic to watch; it leads to significant droughts during games followed by these crazy fast rallies where Kansas scores 10 – 15 points in a couple of minutes.
And it can work as a core strategy IF there are other components to the offense. For example, look at last year. Graham and Svi spent a lot of time behind the 3-pt line but it was balanced out by Mason getting to the rim, Jackson getting to the rim. When guys went cold, the offense didn’t come to a screeching halt.
But this year, I was shocked to see (at the time of the Texas Tech game) that Kansas was dead last in ALL of college basketball in free throw attempts. That’s ridiculous. I looked it up and the teams around us on that list were Colgate, Holy Cross, Western Illinois.
Colgate?! We’re shooting less free throws than a brand of toothpaste??
And yeah, sure, we don’t have size, but lack of free throws, to me, is a sign that our guys are playing way too soft. Free throws would also be a chance for a thin depth chart to get some breaks during a game. Catch their breath. There is no reason our total number of attempts per game should be just 12 or 13.
2010-11: Lucky Number 7
1. The ball may be thrown in any direction with one or both hands.
2. The ball may be batted in any direction with one or both hands (never with the fist).
3. A player cannot run with the ball. The player must throw it from the spot on which he catches it, allowance to be made for a man who catches the ball when running at a good speed if he tries to stop.
Bill Self took over after Roy Williams who took over after Larry Brown. Larry Brown got the keys to the car after Ted Owens, who hopped in after Dick Harp. Before Dick Harp there was the legendary Phog Allen, before Phog Allen there was Dr. James Naismith.
And that's it. Six degrees of separation from Bill Self to the creator of basketball. In that way, Lawrence serves as basketball's Garden of Eden.
4. The ball must be held in or between the hands; the arms or body must not be used for holding it.
5. No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping, or striking in any way the person of an opponent shall be allowed; the first infringement of this rule by any player shall count as a foul, the second shall disqualify him until the next goal is made, or, if there was evident intent to injure the person, for the whole of the game, no substitute allowed.
6. A foul is striking at the ball with the fist, violation of Rules 3,4, and such as described in Rule 5.
Just like God giving the tablets to Moses, Dr. James Naismith had his 13 original rules of basketball written out on a couple pieces of paper. These original documents were going up for auction in New York City and one KU fan was determined to keep the sacred texts home in Lawrence.
The fan cold-called and met with a wealthy KU alumnus, David Booth. He convinced him of the grand mission. It became a high-stakes bidding war, Booth was going toe-to-toe with someone from Duke. Keeping the Biblical theme alive, how perfect that we battled against the (Blue) Devil for the right to the holy text. It was a back and forth affair, like something you'd see on the court between the two Blue Blood programs. In the end, we defeated Duke. David and Suzanne Booth purchased Dr. James Naismith's Original Rules for $4.3 million. The text would be kept safe where it always belonged, in Allen Fieldhouse.
The University Daily Kansan
With the rules secure, the holy land was restored. The Jayhawks broke the KU home-court winning streak record of 62 straight with their 63rd home win in a row over Texas A&M-CC on Nov. 23rd, 2010. The streak ended at 69 straight home wins with a defeat to Texas on January 22, 2011. The streak was the longest in NCAA basketball since 1992.
8. A goal shall be made when the ball is thrown or batted from the grounds into the basket and stays there, providing those defending the goal do not touch or disturb the goal. If the ball rests on the edges, and the opponent moves the basket, it shall count as a goal.
It was another great season for the Jayhawks. KU went 35-3, 14-2 in conference, won the Big 12 outright. They landed a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Marcus Morris was named Big 12 Player of the Year.
And Thomas Robinson won over the hearts of Kansas nation. Our hearts broke for him when the news was released that he lost his grandparents and mom all in the matter of a few weeks. He was now raising his little sister Jayla on campus. And somehow summoning up the energy to be a vital part of this team.
Bill Self was fast becoming a legend in the KU coaching ranks, worthy of that historic lineage to Dr. James Naismith. Worthy of that office on Naismith Drive.
13. The side making the most goals in that time shall be declared the winner. In case of a draw, the game may, by agreement of the captains, be continued until another goal is made.
2017 - 18 Season
It's hard to call it Allen Fieldhouse magic.
Bill Self teams always finish strong, have an incredible knack for performing their best in the last four minutes of a game.
But Bill Self teams also have plenty of 10-20 point wins at home. We don't need to tap into any sort of homecourt magic against a middle of the road or bottom of the conference team.
Yet there we were tied 73-73 with 3:30 to go against Iowa State, a team that would finish last place in the conference. Thankfully, Malik Newman had a career game, we were able to pull out the victory 83-78.
Next game, Kansas State coming into town. We'd surely get up for our in-state rival, yeah?
Well, here we go again. Trailing 67-64 with three minutes left. Vick tied it up then we went back-and-forth five different lead changes. Tapped into that Phog Allen mystique again, barely won 73-72.
One loss in Kansas City. Two losses in Lawrence and two narrow escapes. And it's only January 13th. We haven't even seen Oklahoma or West Virginia yet.
Articles referenced - http://www.espn.com/mens-college-basketball/recap?gameId=400989183
This wasn't quite a rebuild, but worth pointing out that KU lost both Morris twins, plus Morningstar and Reed graduated.
But what we were continuing to find out is that every year under Bill Self starts to build not just Big 12 Championship expectations, but National Championship expectations.
It didn't quite start out that way in the 2011-12 season. Kansas started 3-2 with losses to Kentucky and Duke. Davidson took us down a few weeks later in the Sprint Center (do we ever win in the Sprint Center??).
But the team started to come together. By February 25th, we were 23-5, ranked No. 4 in the country.
But guess who was one spot higher? The Missouri Tigers. And on Saturday, February 25th the two bitter rivals were scheduled to play their final Big 12 "Border War" game as Big 12 opponents.
Missouri was headed to the SEC next season and were looking to leave with an exclamation point. They had a 44-32 lead at the half. Pretty early in the second half, Mizzou grew their lead to 19 points.
Then the comeback began. We just couldn't let Mizzou go out on top. We slowly chipped away. Eleven points with nine minutes to go. Seven points with seven minutes to go. Down by three with six minutes. The crowd going crazy, maybe the loudest it's ever been.
Missouri was up 75-72, twenty-five seconds left on the clock. KU ball. Elijah Johnson does that three-point line weave offense that Self loves to run. He gets it to senior Tyshawn Taylor. Taylor back to Elijah. Elijah driving into the paint, Thomas Robinson cutting to the hoop. Pocket pass, Robinson catches the ball by the basket, goes up for the layup. It's good! And the foul.
Thomas Robinson, first-team All America. Big 12 Player of the Year. The man who has been through so much this last year stepped to the line and tied the game. We stopped them on their final possession, what better way for the Border War to end than in overtime.
And Missouri hadn't lost their fight. They led 84-83 with thirty seconds to go. We did the same weave play set up, except this time Taylor ran a v-cut, Johnson dished him the ball, wide open for the dunk. KU, 85-84.
Missouri punches again. Re-takes the lead, 86-85. Twelve seconds left. Taylor takes the inbounds pass, sprints to the basket with the speed of a young Rajon Rondo. He draws a foul on his shot. Hits both free throws. KU, back on top, 87-86.
The Jayhawks were locked in on defense. Missouri wasn't able to get up a shot before the clock expired. Thomas Robinson held the name KANSAS up on his jersey. Bill Self had both fists in the air, let out a war cry. It was a celebration comparable to a national championship. We had won, at least for now, the final Border War.
But the Jayhawks season was far from being over. We finished 32-7, won the Big 12 outright at 16-2, landed a No. 2 seed. Yet no one was giving this team a shot. Several were saying KU might be vulnerable to an upset loss to No. 15 seeded Detroit.
We would have another rivalry game a month later in the Elite 8. It was Bill Self vs. Roy Williams, Round 2.
It was a great high-scoring first half, the teams went into the locker room tied 47-47. KU's defense tightened in the second half, held the high scoring Tar Heels to just 20 points. Bill Self was on to his second Final Four in five years, second win over Roy in five years. KU wins 80-67.
Kansas had another thriller in the Final Four, beating Ohio State 64-62, a crazy victory because we led for less than four total minutes.
In the national championship, we were going up against a pseudo-NBA team. The Kentucky Wildcats were 37-2, with National Player of the Year Anthony Davis + NBA Lottery picks Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones. Add Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb, and Darius Miller, we were just outmatched. No one on TV picked KU to win. It was hard even as a KU fan to believe.
Yet the Jayhawks did what they did best all year. Just kept fighting. Down 41-27 at half, the Jayhawks hung in there like Rocky vs. Apollo Creed. The lead was down to five points with a minute and a half to go. In the end, we only lost 67-59.
Syracuse hurt in 2003. Losing to Maryland hurt in 2002. But this loss was different, and I'm not sure we'll ever feel something like this again. The truth is, it wsn't devastating. This KU team overachieved all the way to the final game. Bill Self said it best when the team was greeted by fans on their return home.
"We didn't lose, we just ran out of time."
Billy Preston is gone. Frustrated by the investigation, Preston has chosen to leave campus and go play for a professional team in Bosnia.
And it's hard to blame him. He has his career to think about. He needs some exposure, try and solidify a spot in the NBA Draft's first round. There were no signs that he was going to play this season so he needed to take matters into his own hands, make a decision for his career and his family.
Thankfully, the De Sousa situation worked out, but the kid's the equivalent of a high school senior. That's a lot to put on his plate.
We were still small inside. And no time did we look smaller than that first half in Morgantown. Ended up down 41-27 at halftime. West Virginia's big man, Konate, had five first-half blocks. He looked like the Gladiator and we looked like the small Junior Varsity team.
This is the type of half I was afraid of. And I should have seen it coming, too. If we had that much trouble with K-State and Iowa State on our homecourt, what did I expect going on the road to play a team ranked No. 6?
Alright. One win away from a National Championship last year. Robinson and Taylor both graduated. This is the year for a rebuild. Right?
In what became one of my favorite teams ever, the Jayhawks led by Elijah Johnson, Ben McLemore, Travis Releford, Kevin Young, Jeff Withey showed what's possible when a team of humble guys commits to playing really hard defense.
This "rebuild" started out 19-1. Finished 31-6, tied for first place in the Big 12. The Selection Committee had no choice but to give this team a No. 1 seed. They might not look the part personnel-wise, but the way they played, they earned that No. 1 seed all season long.
McLemore was a one-and-done, but maybe the most exciting freshman addition was a guy by the name of Perry Ellis. Perry had flashes, especially toward the end of the season. He looked like the kind of guy who would stay all four years and just get incrementally better each season.
What a career that would be.
The pre-game hype was all about Trae Young, the guard for Oklahoma who plays like Steph Curry and became ESPN's biggest obsession since Tim Tebow.
Young had a great game, 26 points on nine shots, but Kansas was in control. Until the story of this game became Udoka's free throws.
Lon Kruger went "Hack-a-Shaq," or "Poke-a-Doke" on us down the stretch. Udoka missed six-of-seven free throws while the opposing crowd cheered against him. Those empty possessions allowed Oklahoma to climb back and steal one from KU, 85-80.
Texas Tech was now in the driver's seat of the Big 12 race. West Virginia and Oklahoma still in the mix. And the scary part is, Kruger might have just given the blueprint to the other eight teams in the conference. It raised the question, can we even play Udoka at the end of a game?
What the year before lacked in star power, this team made up for with superstar freshmen Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins.
This was on full display in the Champions Classic in Chicago. Jabari Parker dominated the first half, but it was Wiggins in the second scoring 16 points, locking down Parker on defense.
But as the year went on, it was Embiid who was starting to become the bigger standout freshman talent. Embiid looked like a young Hakeem Olajuwon. He looked like a once-in-a-generation type of player, a standout the likes of an Anthony Davis or Kevin Durant.
But, similar to his first few seasons in the NBA, it was injury that took him out. Embiid might have been able to play for the second or third weekend of the NCAA Tournament, but unfortunately, Stanford got us in the second round with Embiid watching from the bench, itching to get in the game.
Looking back on the season, this was an extremely competitive Big 12 year. Iowa State, Oklahoma, and Baylor were all Top 25 teams. KU ended on top again, the 10th title in a row.
The season raised one big "What If" that I still wonder today. Especially seeing how the tournament ended up with a surprise UCONN win. What If we had a healthy Joel Embiid. What team had an answer to stop Hakeem 2.0?
As great as Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins were, it was a lesser played freshman on this team that would go on to be one of the best Jayhawks of all-time. Quiet, rarely smiling, but always tough.
Oh, and who can forget the great Tarik Black throwdown a la Dwight Howard or Blake Griffin. Complete with one of the greatest bench celebrations in basketball history.
It was time to honor the 2008 National Champions. Crazy to think it's already the 10-year anniversary.
Members of the team were back in town, they were all brought out at halftime to be honored, receive a standing ovation.
How distant that team feels from this year's squad. Can you imagine those guys losing in Allen Fieldhouse for the third time in one season? To an Oklahoma State team that was under .500 in the conference? There was a pride in Bill Self having more Big 12 titles than
homecourt losses. This team seemed dead-set on giving that record a run for its money. It was the first time a KU team had lost three home games in one season since '98-99.
The scary part is, there were still four home games left, two of those being Oklahoma and West Virginia.
This was the year the Big 12 streak was at its most vulnerable. And the beginning of the Big 12 becoming a top-tier basketball conference.
Check this out, here's where teams ranked at the end of the season AP poll.
Iowa State (No. 9)
Oklahoma (No. 13)
Baylor (No. 16)
West Virginia (No. 20)
The Big 12's turnaround was all about coaching. Iowa State led by Fred Hoiberg, who would
go on to coach the Chicago Bulls. Lon Kruger at Oklahoma, Scott Drew at Baylor, and ol Bobby Huggins at West Virginia.
But once again it would be Bill Self who finished on top. Kansas won outright, 13-5 in conference, 27-9 overall.
How did they pull it off? They protected Allen Fieldhouse, went a perfect 9-0. If you want to win the Big 12, you have to go through Lawrence.
Well, at least this loss wasn't at home...
Kansas went to Baylor, lost 80-64. Baylor's another team that was sub .500 in conference.
At Baylor, we put together one terrible half offensively (held to 20 points) followed by a terrible half defensively (gave up 50 points). Svi had a swollen eye that clearly affected his shot (he went 1-8) and it revealed a simple truth: if Svi is held under 10 points, there’s not
enough scoring to keep up.
And the lineup is a mess. Vick was dropped to 7th man, Newman also came off the bench. Yet both ended up playing 32 minutes and we’re our second and third highest scorers. What is going on? Are we sticking with the 4-guard lineup or not?
After the game, I wrote on my KU blog that Kansas really should be a No. 7 seed. That's what we're playing like. With the tough schedule ahead, I didn't see a way to pass Texas
Tech in the standings.
No. 1 vs. No. 2.
11.9 seconds left. Triple overtime. No. 1 Kansas: 107, No. 2 Oklahoma: 106.
The referee bounces the basketball to Buddy Hield, Oklahoma’s star shooting guard and soon to be National Player of the Year. Hield is at the sideline out of bounds near midcourt. Sixteen thousand Kansas Jayhawks fans are on their feet losing their collective mind.
Frank Mason III, at least five inches shorter than Hield, starts doing frantic jumping jacks. No one understands how he still has anything left in his legs. Mason has already logged 53 minutes--53!--by this point; the second half of those spent guarding Hield who was having a Kobe Bryant-esque shooting performance. Maybe the best opposing performance since Kevin Durant.
A college point guard is supposed to average 30 maybe 32 minutes a contest, meaning Frank’s played a game and a half with nothing more than a quick Gatorade break.
Mason is getting closer and closer to the out-of-bounds line. He’s “can tell if Buddy Hield uses Old Spice or Dove for Men” type of close. Frank’s defense is borderline illegal, but no ref on the planet is making that call on a late night in Allen Fieldhouse. Hield can only see flashes of the court between Mason’s arms and legs. It’s like that scene in the Dark Knight when the Joker releases the dogs on Batman. KU has released their attack dog.
Frank Mason: part pitbull, part bulldog.
The crowd is getting louder and louder. Time’s ticking. Hield looking, scanning, tries to go over Mason’s head. Mason deflects the ball with his left hand, it’s in play, 11, 10, Mason chases it down. Oklahoma scrambles to foul Mason and everyone in the stands is either jumping up and down or doing that two arms up in the air, “We won!” victory stance. Maybe too early to waive the wheat, but we were ready to celebrate.
Mason heads to the line for the familiar ending. He’s the closer, KU’s Mariano Rivera. There is no shake in his hands, no wobbliness in his knees whatsoever. He’s got the ultimate poker face, no “what if I miss this shot” playing on repeat in his head. Pick the cliche of your choice, he’s got ice in his veins, cool as a cucumber, cool as the other side of the pillow, the fans have seen this now for three years, seen that no matter how tight the game, how big the free throws, Mason remains unnerved. Because, nine times out of ten, he buries both of the shots. Nothing but net.
Final score: Kansas: 109, Oklahoma: 106.
Kansas remains the No. 1 team in the country.
This was a great team. Finished the season with just four losses, landed the No. 1 overall seed again in the NCAA Tournament.
Even before the season things were off to a great start. Our guys won a Gold medal at the World University games.
The Jayhawks started the year 14-1, hit a little bit of a rough patch where they lost three of five, then won their next 17 games. This 17-game winning streak was kicked off with an epic overtime win against Kentucky. It was a game where things finally clicked for Wayne Selden. He scored 33 points.
And as great as the Tarik Black dunk was, Selden had one that was even more epic. Also one of the best calls of Hall-of-Fame announcer Brent Musburger's career. Shave and a haircut. Save the women and children!
Graham, Mason, and Selden on the perimeter. Perry Ellis down low. Plus frontcourt toughness with Jamari Traylor and Landen Lucas. Sharp-shooting with Svi.
This team had so many weapons and was so good defensively. Unfortunately, the way the bracket ended up we met Villanova in the Elite Eight for an absolute battle. Villanova ended up winning 64-59 en route to a National Championship. That game will be referenced as another year Self got stuck at the Elite Eight, but that's the way the bracket lines up sometimes; it was really a Final Four game. There were three teams dominating the tournament that year: Kansas, Villanova, and North Carolina. We just happened to draw Villanova earlier.
For the first time in the Bill Self era, a Kansas team has been swept. For 102 other Big 12 series, we either swept or split.
But not this year. In what was a crappy sequel to the first meeting with Oklahoma State, Kansas went to Stillwater and took an 82-64 loss. The first meeting we led for all of 30 seconds. This time around? Not even one second.
Two trophies that no Kansas team should ever wish to carry. First team to lose three games in Allen Fieldhouse since '98-99. First team in the Bill Self era to get swept.
This felt like the year. Which is starting to feel redundant to say. Every year feels like the year with Bill Self.
But this team brought back Mason, Graham, Svi, and Landen Lucas. We had the big addition of freshman superstar Josh Jackson, maybe the most hyped KU freshman since Andrew Wiggins.
We lost the first game in Hawaii to Indiana, then flew all the way over to New York City for a showdown against Duke.
Frank Mason had the ball at halfcourt, game tied 75-75. He went to the left, gained steam as if he were driving, then quickly came to a stop, elevated around the top elbow. Jumper was good, KU ahead 77-75. Duke fired up a last second shot from halfcourt, no good.last-second KU wins!
Two games into the season, Mason already had a signature last second shot over the No. 1 team in the country. Frank had scored 51 points in two games.
The Jayhawks went on to win their next 18 games in a row. Then only dropped two in conference play. This Big 12 title officially tied the UCLA record of 13 in a row and what a way to do it, the next closest team was four games behind in the win/loss column.
And this wasn't a weak year for the Big 12. West Virginia, Iowa State, Baylor all finished in the Top 15 of the AP Poll. We were just that good. The Jayhawks landed a No. 1 seed again. It was another impressive year, when you look back we had big victories over college basketball heavyweights: Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State. And didn't even need Allen Fieldhouse to do it; those were all either neutral or true road games.
The best part about this season: Frank Mason, National Player of the year. First Jayhawk to land the award since Danny Manning twenty years before.
It was a sad team to see go, and sure, we've rebuilt before but how could we bounce back from losing National Player of the Year, plus the No. 3 pick in the NBA Draft. Plus we lost Landen Lucas to graduation, Carlton Bragg and Dwight Coleby transferred elsewhere. It didn't seem like we would have the firepower, or the frontcourt, to keep the Big 12 streak alive.
In all likelihood, the streak would end at 13. Tied with UCLA. But hey, a share counts as a win right? Nothing wrong with being in the history books tied with John Wooden?
So, I think I've left out a few things about this year's season.
Like the Jayhawks blowing out South Dakota State by 32, Texas Southern by 43, Oakland by 43. Those teams aren't lowly mid-majors. All three finished near the top of their conference. South Dakota State will be one of the most trendy upset picks for the tournament.
Or what about Devonte Graham's back-to-back 35-point games against Toledo and Syracuse.
Or Svi's late-game shot at Nebraska, a quality road win. Nebraska finished 13-5 in the Big 10.
Sure, there was that ugly loss at home to Texas Tech, but this team started out 4-1 in conference, staying right in the hunt.
And that West Virginia game I mentioned earlier? The Jayhawks grew up in Morgantown. Lightfoot blocking shots, the young De Sousa in his first real game action went toe-to-toe with Konate. They put together a comeback just as sweet as Thomas Robinson's crew against Missouri. And they pulled off another comeback months later in Allen Fieldhouse against that same scrappy West Virginia crew.
Udoka shot 7-of-10 from the free-throw line in that second win over West Virginia. He had been working hours a day after that Oklahoma loss trying to improve his form. You can see him at the line thinking through everything. Alright. Elbow in.free-throw
The rematch against Oklahoma, revenge was sweet. KU - 104-74.
And just like that, a team that had been doubted all year long (by myself included), a team that didn't seem tough enough, didn't protect our sacred homecourt, didn't look like those last 13 Kansas teams, here they were with a one-game lead in the Big 12 going down to Texas Tech. The college Gameday crew was there. Win and we have Number 14.
And who better to lead the way than Devonte Graham. He had just hit a pull-up jumper reminiscent of Frank Mason's shot over Duke in the garden. Now here he was driving to the hoop, throwing up a circus shot that somehow bounced in.
As time expired, the players all ran around celebrating. We extended the streak to 14. I felt a huge weight off my chest, I can't imagine how the players felt. For months they had been carrying this streak, everywhere they went, and the thing about KU fans, I think we're kind of like Gollum from Lord of the Rings, just absolutely obsessed with getting the ring, getting number 14.
History has a funny way of editing out the bad parts. The teams that came before seem like legends and the team in danger of breaking the streak (or when it finally does happen, look, it has to end at some point. Right?) seem like they must be, in comparison, a letdown. A lesser team.
But if you look back, 2004 - 2005 we lost three in a row before that big win over Oklahoma State. It was the first three-game losing streak in 11 years. We lost the season finale to Missouri, creating a share for first place with Oklahoma. And when I said "that minor hiccup" against Villanova, I was sugar coating a brutal 83-62 loss. We finished the season losing five of seven games, then got bounced first round to Bucknell. And, add salt to the wound, North Carolina won the national title.
2005 - 06
Lost to Bradley in the first round. Back-to-back first-round exits.
2006 - 07
Lost at home to Oral Roberts.
2007 - 08
This team... nah, they were pretty awesome. But two things to point out, they really only went seven deep (remember how many times the '17-18 team was called out for not having enough depth?). And they shared the Big 12 crown with Texas, it wasn't an outright championship.
2008 - 09
Two losses in the Sprint Center. A loss first round in the Big 12 tournament.
2009 - 10
Number 1 overall seed, but one of the biggest tournament upsets ever by losing in the Round of 32 to Northern Iowa.
2010 - 11
2011 - 12
Lost to Davidson in the Sprint Center. Seriously, do we ever win there? Why do we still schedule games?
2012 - 13
Lost at home to Oklahoma State. Was part of a three-game losing streak.
2013 - 14
Even with all that talent of Wiggins and Embiid, this team lost ten games. And a second-round exit.
2014 - 15
Lost to Kentucky early season 72-40. And this team did the unthinkable, lost second round in the tournament at the hands of little brother Wichita State. Losing to Missouri, sure. Kansas State, sure. But Wichita State??
2015 - 16
The memories are fresh of Bill Self trying to get more out of Vick and Newman from this season, but remember the up-and-down play of Wayne Selden? Or how the players had to come to coach and say, "You need to start Landen Lucas." There are always question marks during a season. Roster changes. Starting lineup changes. No team has it figured out from the very beginning.
2016 - 17
Another Elite Eight finish. The fifth time Bill Self has gotten the Jayhawks that far without a Final Four trip.
And at other schools, you print off t-shirts for Elite Eight seasons. At Kansas, it's seen as a disappointing end.
I chose to end this book here, I'm writing before the Big 12 Tournament, before the NCAA Tournament. The odds are that the run won't end in a National Championship. It will be hard to get to the Final Four. And too often I judge the entire season on this final tournament.
But this streak is about the regular season. Never having a rebuilding year. Self always taking this team to the top of the conference and, in turn, getting us No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. The expectations have become so high, we forgot that teams don't always go undefeated on their homecourt. Teams don't always have five NBA players. The one-and-done superstar isn't going to be there every year.
To me, this season was all about history. The teams of the past reaching out, investing back in the current guys, keeping the streak alive. There was Sherron Collins giving leadership advice to Graham after the back-to-back losses. There was the 2008 team coming to campus. Frank Mason, Josh Jackson visiting around the NBA All-Star game. Wayne Simien sitting right there by the bench, one of the all-time great KU free throw shooters. I've got to believe he went in to help Udoka work through his struggles.
Just as the coaching lineage goes back to James Naismith, you can follow the same journey with the players. What Danny Manning taught as an assistant to Miles, Langford, Simien. What those guys taught to Jackson, Kaun, Robinson. What those guys + Mario and Brandon taught to Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich. What they passed along to the Morris Twins, what they passed along to TRob and Tyshawn Taylor. The link keeps going to Frank Mason who passed the throne over to Devonte Graham.
As I'm writing this, it's the day before playing Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tournament. And we've got more bad news. Udoka was injured in practice, he will sit out the Big 12 Tournament, but should be back for the NCAAs. I'm left wondering if this is Joel Embiid deja vu. And will Oklahoma State extend their sweep to three games?
And who knows what will happen in the NCAA Tournament. Even if you're Kansas, or Duke, or North Carolina, or any other college basketball powerhouse, nine times out of ten the season will end in a loss. Even Tom Izzo, Mr. March, hasn't won a title since 2000.
No one wants the story to end on a sad note. So, for this book, the story ends on Senior Night in Allen Fieldhouse. The outright Big 12 title wrapped up. Fresh off a win. You got Bill Self with the microphone, getting ready to introduce the Big 12 Player of the Year.
"We knew he had a chance to be pretty good, I didn't know he was probably going to be 2018 Big 12 Player of the Year good," Bill Self said.
And then in a rare moment, Self was silent and getting emotional. He was pacing around. Getting a little choked up.
"Probably as good a leader and man that we've had at Kansas. Number 4, Devonte Graham."
The crowd erupted in a standing ovation. Graham stepped out to midcourt. He stood right by the Jayhawk logo, towel over his shoulders. As he spoke, he gradually moved the towel over his head, periodically wiping the tears from his eyes as he thanked the coaches, the fans, his family.
"To my teammates, man, this has gotta be my favorite group right here, just because I feel like the whole year a lot of people doubted us. Losing at home, losing back-to-back. There was a lot of Tweets, people saying we didn't deserve to wear the Kansas uniform and, through all of that, we battled, and we fought, and we outright champions."
The crowd rose back to their feet for another standing ovation.
A few days later, it was confirmed, Graham was Big 12 player of the year. The honor secures that his jersey will one day be raised to the rafters. Graham reflected on how cool it will be to see it up there someday.
"It's going to be special. If you look up there, you see all the KU greats, legends. I get to be up there beside them. I get to show my kids and grandkids when I bring them back here for some games."
What makes Kansas so hard to beat, and why this streak is so hard to end, is you've got the team on the court plus all the teams, all the great players that came before it. Their jerseys are all hanging above, watching down on the Phog. It's like coming into an old cathedral; the church choir singing Rooooock Chaaaaaaalk Jaaaaaaayhawk. All this tradition serves as reinforcements, the former players become teachers and guides, all making sure the current roster keeps the legacy alive.
And sure, no team is perfect. But when you add up all of these teams together over the last 14 years, their accomplishment is nothing short of perfection. An unprecedented 14-0.
The final lap was the hardest of all, but it may have also been the sweetest. In the end, this 1 special team kept the streak alive, led by an all-time great wearing the Number 4.
Seems like a pretty fitting combination for title Number 14.
Note: I originally published this book at the end of the Big 12 regular season. But as the Jayhawks kept winning, first in the Big 12 Tournament and then the NCAA Tournament, I continued writing some postseason blog posts. I've published those here to keep the story going.
BIG 12 TOURNAMENT
We’re spoiled. It’s as simple as that.
There is no reason we should have beaten Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament. They beat us twice during the regular season, destroyed us twice actually, and we only led for like thirty seconds in the combined 80 minutes.
Now enter the equation for the Big 12 tournament: Go play the same team who you lost to twice, but this time without Udoka.
And yet these guys figured it out, 82-64.
There’s no reason Kansas State should be a casual win. It’s hard to beat a team three times in a season, especially a team that makes the Round of 32 (I’m writing this Saturday morning so it could even be a fellow Sweet 16 team unless America’s UMBC Retrievers keep the magic going). The Wildcats pushed us to the brink in Allen Fieldhouse earlier in the season. They’re tough, physical, it’s a game we would seem to need Udoka.
Yet the biggest point margin of the three contests took place in Kansas City. Jayhawks win, 83-67.
Alright. Ok. Surely this run would end with West Virginia, right? Konate eating Lightfoot and De Sousa alive? We didn’t even need to win. By making the Big 12 championship, the Number 1 seed was secured. We were safe. Plus it might be nice for Jevon Carter and Darius Miles to finish their awesome careers at West Virginia with a Big 12 tournament title. There’s sentimental value there. Self is friends with Bob Huggins too. And we’d enter the NCAA Tournament with a loss, stay hungry, we don’t need it.
De Sousa has his best game of the season, scoring 16 points and pulling down 10 rebounds. Graham dished out 13 assists, Newman scored 20 again. Jayhawks win, 81-70.
The team that once looked like a 7 seed had climbed all the way to the top. Number 1 seed in the Midwest, playing in Wichita followed by (hopefully) Omaha. In terms of regular-season achievements, there’s not much higher than that. And they joined the inner circle of Bill Self teams who won both the regular season and Big 12 tournament.
And yet the doubts continued, even for the first-round matchup against Number 16 seeded Penn. The Quakers were number 10 in the country in 3-pt defense and top 30 in rebounding. Their biggest strength was stopping our biggest strength. Their second biggest strength was where we might be at our weakest considering Doke would only be used in “emergency situations.”
And you know Kansas, those Jayhawks are vulnerable to first-round exits…
Except we’re really not. It’s kind of like a marriage fight that references something that happened 20 years ago. We still remind Bill Self about Bucknell, and Bradley, and that time he forgot to pick up the milk, but worth pointing out: those happened 12 and 13 years ago! Self has made it to at least the second round ever since. No one has a longer streak; not Roy, not K, not Izzo, not Calipari.
And boy am I glad we played Penn before UMBC upset Virginia. I would have been sweating way more than I already was in that first half. UMBC was ranked Number 184 in KenPom, Penn was 127. We had more of a case to lose to Penn than Virginia did with UMBC. And wouldn’t that have fit some of the unfortunate milestones of this team?
First Self team to lose three times in Allen Fieldhouse.
First time Self got swept by a Big 12 opponent.
First time a Number 1 lost to a Number 16 seed…
But these Jayhawks once again rose above the expectations. Devonte` Graham continued his case for National Player of the Year with a stunning 29 point, 6 rebound, 6 assist performance. Vick, who has had his ups and downs, is showing us that the NCAA Tournament is his time to shine. Chipped in 14 points on just seven shots. Newman with 10, Svi with 10, Lightfoot a near double-double. It was a full team effort led by one of the best guards in KU history.
Alright. So we beat a good 16 seed by 16 points. Should I pass out cookies and gold stars to the guys? Go schedule the parade down Mass Street?
Let’s be honest, Doke didn’t look 100 percent. I’d say, at best, might have been 70-75 percent healthy. Didn’t matter too much against a Number 16, but waiting for us next round was a senior-heavy Seton Hall team with a guy by the name of Delgado who is one of the greatest rebounders in the history of college basketball. We haven’t seen anyone of his caliber, Texas A&M would be the closest. And at least against the Aggies Doke wasn’t wearing a knee brace…
This is a Seton Hall team that beat Texas Tech by 10 and pushed Villanova to overtime, a one-point loss. This is where the road made sense to end. We could spend the offseason wondering “What if” Udoka was healthy and look forward to next season with a more traditional KU roster filled with depth and NBA talent. There’s no shame in the Round of 32…
Especially after the first half. Graham was off. Four turnovers. Ended the half on the bench, looked like he was suffering from a borderline concussion. “KU’s iron man taken out by a teammate’s shoulder.” Or how about the Shakespearian sportswriter, “For alas! It wasn’t Udoka’s knee but his shoulder that ultimately did the Jayhawks in.” It would be the worst possible ending to an incredible season.
And Graham’s shots would continue to rim out. We needed all 29 of Graham’s points against Penn, could we really win against a better opponent on a night when he’d score just eight points?
Delgado continued to dominate inside on his way to a 24 point 23 rebound game. This was the first 20-20 game against a Number 1 seed since Hakeem Olajuwon. The first player to pull down 23 rebounds in the NCAA Tournament in 40 years.
Graham decided, “If my shot’s not gonna fall, it’s time to facilitate.” He ended up with nine assists, igniting the rest of the offense. Malik Newman picked up the scoring load with 28 points and a perfect 8-for-8 from the foul line. Newman is the rare case of a guy who actually wants to be on the line for late game free throws.
Svi chipped in 16, Vick had 13 – all of his threes seemed to come when we needed them most. Vick was a big momentum guy, locked in on defense. Lightfoot had the big dunk at the end.
But it was the big guy who won us this game. Udoka went to war, seemingly getting stronger as the game went on. He scored 10 points, pulled down seven rebounds, two assists, two steals, and two blocks. Even more impressive, Travis Hines points out in this article that Kansas was +21 with Doke on the court and -17 with him off the court. He banged inside with Delgado, a large reason Delgado looked so winded at the end (well, that and Delgado played for 38 minutes).
Seton Hall would just not go away. The Pirates scored 26 points in the first half, they scored 15 points in the final 58 seconds (!). Twelve of those were from Carrington who was playing like a video game with the cheat codes on. Cross half court, dribble, dribble, made three. And again. And again.
We needed Graham and Newman to go 14-of-16 from the foul line. Any more misses and one of those Carrington threes would have been for the win. We needed our four-guard lineup to (barely) break that hectic fullcourt press at the end. And we needed Lightfoot to confidently slam it home.
Even cooler, check out this Tweet by Mitch Lightfoot. You think Doke was bitter not to be on the court at the end, Self rolling with Lightfoot for more reliable free throw shooting? Not at all. This team is all in for each other.
— Mitch Lightfoot (@Mitchlightfoot) March 18, 2018
And, oh by the way, Doke quietly went 2-for-4 at the foul line. Small detail, but every point matters at this point.
There’s no such thing as an upset in the Sweet 16 and beyond. We saw a glimpse against Seton Hall, the teams that get this far have a whole lot of heart and don’t go down easily.
A ton of talent too. We will either face the SEC regular season champs (Auburn) or Clemson who finished right behind Virginia, Duke, North Carolina in the loaded ACC. Those two teams, similar to us, have been doubted from the very beginning, picked to finish much lower in their conference.
The Sweet 16, historically, has been kind to KU. Bill Self is an impressive 7-2 in the Sweet 16. And it makes sense, give him and his coaching staff a week to prepare, the Jayhawks become really hard to beat.
I also want to gush real quick about how sneaky good Bill Self is in the NCAA Tournament. Ryan Rinehart posted this on Twitter, take a look at these coaching accomplishments:
Hearing a lot of takes about Bill Self being bad in March. A few fun facts:
– Self has been to the Elite 8 50% of the time while at KU.
– He’s been to 2 NCAA Title games in 10 years. One of 4 active coaches to do that.
– Since 08 Self has 27 NCAAT wins. Coach K has 23.
— Ryan (@RRinehart2012) March 13, 2018
That’s how good things are at Kansas, we see seven trips to the Elite Eight as a bad thing. Two Final Fours out of those seven as a severe underachievement. It reminds me a little bit of LeBron James “only” having three rings after eight trips to the NBA Finals. Would we look at his career better had he bowed out earlier in the playoffs? Or missed the playoffs entirely? What’s wrong with making a deep run even if the end result, in Self’s case a Final Four, doesn’t always happen? He’s putting his guys in position 50 percent of his tournament appearances.
I say this, because–if we get past Clemson or Auburn–the teams likely waiting for us in the Elite Eight will be the favorite and an incredibly difficult matchup. We had a hard time with Delgado, now enter Duke who has two guys in Wendell Carter and Marvin Bagley III that are just as big and projected to be NBA Lottery picks. Think about this, Svi or Vick is going to have to guard one of them in the paint (course, they’re going to have to guard him too on the perimeter).
And then there’s Michigan State. IF the Spartans beat Syracuse, this is the worst matchup for us in the tournament. Jackson and Miles Bridges are both lottery picks, both big frontcourt players. Nick Ward and Tillman are like Delgado + 50 lbs. Unless Lightfoot and De Sousa eat nothing but hamburgers for the next week, I have no idea how we will matchup. The rebounding margin could be humiliating.
Villanova is the Vegas favorite to win the NCAA Tournament. Duke and Michigan State are right behind at No. 2 and No. 3. Add that together and an Elite Eight loss would not be a disappointment, we will be the heavy underdogs. Yeah, it’d be another “Bill Self Elite Eight loss,” but there’s really no shame in that, especially given the opponents.
But doesn’t that sound familiar? There’s no shame in losing to West Virginia without Udoka. No shame in losing to Kansas State, beating a team three times is really hard to do. No shame in losing to West Virginia, we already got the Number 1 seed. Hey, that 16 seed is really really good and look what happened with UMBC and Virginia. Seton Hall, they’re just too good and we’re not healthy, plus Graham’s having an off-shooting night.
Different than any Kansas team of the last 14 years, this team knows what it’s like to have this strange combination of disappointing the expectations (the losses in Allen Fieldhouse, the Oklahoma State sweep) and rising above lowered expectations (insert the long list here, capped off by winning the Big 12 and making the Sweet 16).
Again, I don’t want to jump ahead because Clemson and Auburn are both really good teams, but this incredible season is all leading toward a collision course with two teams (Michigan State and Duke) that are built like the traditional Bill Self Kansas teams. Both have strong frontcourts. NBA talent. Hall-of-fame coach. It would be a fitting final challenge for this team; can they get to the Final Four with heart over talent, beating the kind of powerhouse team that they have been in the shadows of all season long.
The crazy thing is, they might just do it.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The ACC has a way of owning the NCAA Tournament. If you look at the last 30 years, there have only been seven tournaments where no teams from the ACC have made the Final Four.
Three of those seven years (1996, 2003, 2012) had either Louisville or Syracuse involved, teams that would later join the conference.
The Big 12 has almost the exact opposite story. Only eight out of 30 times has the Final Four included a Big 12 team. That means a Big 12 Final Four appearance comes around about once every three years. It’s only a little bit more frequent than the Winter Olympics.
And, just to pile things on, if back in 1998 you made a bet with a buddy, “Hey, for the next 30 years you can take the Big 12, and I’ll take teams seeded Number 8 or higher, whoever gets the most Final Fours wins,” you would have won.
It all leads to this ugly thought that creeps into my head right around this time of year:
IS THE KANSAS STREAK OF 14 BIG 12 TITLES REALLY NOT THAT IMPRESSIVE? HAVE WE SECRETLY BEEN DOMINATING A MID-MAJOR CONFERENCE?
I immediately shake off the thought. No, come on. That’s ridiculous.
And then another Sweet 16 comes with only one or two Big 12 teams. Another Elite Eight with zero or one. Another empty Final Four.
The thought starts to gain some more traction.
BILL SELF IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
No one can dispute Bill Self’s success during the regular season at KU. Fourteen Big 12 titles. Nine thirty-win seasons. Landed a Number 1 seed eight times. Number 1 overall seed twice.
Only once since 2007 has he entered the NCAA tournament lower than a Number 2 seed (and that was a No. 3 in 2009, the year after winning a National Championship. A year where Self needed to replace eight guys who accounted for 86 percent of the scoring from the year before).
This dominance continues into the first round of the tournament. Self had those painful back-to-back appearances in ’05 and ’06, with Bucknell and Bradley, but since that time he’s been a perfect 12-0.
The Round of 32 has been a little bit shaky, who can forget those recent losses to Stanford and Wichita State, but for perspective “a little bit shaky” still means 10-3.
And the Sweet 16 has been almost as sweet as the first round. Self is 13-2 in the Round of 64. He’s 8-2 in the Sweet 16. This is a crazy stat: Eight out of 15 years he’s taken KU to the Elite Eight.
BUT NOW ENTER BILL SELF’S BIGGEST NEMESIS.
“The Elite Eight.” Call it a boogeyman, a monkey on the back, a giant shadow. It’s the one area where Self and the Jayhawks have not been very elite. Before the Duke game, Self was just 2-5 in this dreaded round. If you add on his trips at Illinois and Oral Roberts, the record falls to a brutal 2-7.
That ugly thought starts to regain traction.
Maybe we keep losing in the Elite Eight because we’re not in the same league as Duke, North Carolina, UCLA, and Kentucky. And that’s ok. They are history’s “Final Four.” The real Blue Bloods. UCLA with 11 titles, Kentucky with eight, North Carolina with six, Duke with five. And there we are with our humble three. Hell, Indiana and UConn even have more titles than us. Villanova could catch us this year. Or look at Tom Izzo. He doesn’t have these same Elite Eight woes. He has seven Final Fours to compare with Bill Self’s two (before the Duke game).
We are the Blue Blood that can’t win the big boy games…
Whew. Shake it off. Think positive. Think positive.
In the last post, I wrote that we are spoiled as KU fans. And it’s true. I don’t expect other fanbases to send us flowers after another Elite Eight loss.
But Kansas fans know that our “plight” is continually making it to the doorstep of the Final Four and suffering these heartbreaking losses. And yeah, I get it, we should be grateful to be that far year after year. Other schools wait decades in between trips, sometimes more than half a century. I mean it’s been 55 years for Sister Jean. We should be printing out Elite Eight t-shirts and wearing them proudly.
But I do think there’s a little extra pain in being so close to the promised land. To achieve so much but still not quite be the best. Kansas is kind of like the multimillionaire who has moved in next door to billionaire neighbors; we can’t buy the same yacht as Duke and Kentucky.
KANSAS VS. CLEMSON
The Midwest Region became a miniature ACC Tournament. To make the Final Four, we’d have to take out Clemson then either Duke or Syracuse. A Clemson team who just demolished Auburn by 30 points. And then Duke or Syracuse, Coach K or Jim Boeheim, those two coaches combine for over 2,000 wins and have rings as well as Olympic Gold Medals.
Prior to the Thursday and Friday games, ESPN ran an article re-ranking the Sweet 16 teams. They put Villanova at No. 1, Duke No. 2, and then Clemson at No. 3.
How about Kansas? We were all the way down at No. 10, just one spot ahead of Syracuse.
The CBS team had the same sentiment on Friday night. What’s the most likely upset?
Everyone agreed, Clemson over Kansas. You could add this to the growing list of KU doubts; this team can’t win the Big 12, they can’t win the Big 12 tournament without Udoka, they might be the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16.
The biggest positive right away was seeing Udoka back in the starting lineup. He still didn’t look 100 percent, but definitely steps above the Penn or Seton Hall games. Kansas controlled the first half, going into the locker room up 40-27.
The lead got to be 62-42 and then Clemson came clawing back. With about two minutes left, that 20 point lead had shrunk to around six. It felt similar to the Seton Hall game; just hold on, and wish the clock would move faster. KU ended up winning 80-76.
The biggest thing to note about this game was both Doke and Devonte` were in serious foul trouble. With Doke that’s nothing unique, but playing without Graham, for even two minutes in a game, is rare. Graham sat out for five against Clemson, and for some added perspective, Devonte had sat out a grand total of 11 minutes since January 15th (!) And five of those 11 minutes were against Oklahoma in a 30-pt romp.
The Jayhawks, who have developed this “next man up” mentality since the Big 12 Tournament, turned to their other guys. Malik Newman went for 17 points, hit four threes. Vick continued his solid tournament run with 13 points and eight rebounds. Svi chipped in nine, De Sousa another big game off the bench with nine points and six rebounds.
And Graham still managed to get a 16-5-4, Udoka logged a double-double with 14 and 11. For the third straight year, we made it past the Sweet 16.
Survive and advance. Now here we were facing our biggest challenge of the year (Duke) in the dreaded round that Devonte and Svi had never been past. A round that served as a brick wall barrier to former great players like the Morris Twins, Perry Ellis, Frank Mason, Josh Jackson.
Devonte`, Svi, here’s no shame in being a part of that list…
“I think about it all the time,” Devonte` Graham said prior to the Duke matchup. “I just told the guys in the locker room… this year, we’ve got to get over the hump.”
In 2016, Graham was having a great game against Villanova but was whistled for a controversial fifth foul that sent him to the sidelines for the final minutes. Last year, it was the Oregon game. Devonte` had his worst game of the season finishing without a made field goal, just three made free throws to his name.
And those things can haunt you. Basketball is so mental and it can become pretty irrational. Just like a player can convince themselves that a pair of socks is the secret to their winning streak, the downside of that superstitious logic is a player can also get too into their head about a venue or a specific round in the tournament. I can’t play in the Elite Eight.
Was all of that going through Devonte’s head? We’ll never know. The play on the court wasn’t his best game, but he still controlled the tempo, played all 45 minutes, ended up with 11-6-6. He hit a couple of big threes, one of those in the first half beyond NBA range.
I guess my point is this: it would be human nature for Devonte and Svi to want that game a little too badly, not be able to get into a flow. Not be able to play loose. And, once again, KU would need other guys to step up to carry us over the finish line.
WELL, LOOK NO FURTHER THAN MALIK NEWMAN.
Newman has had an up and down year. Self benched him multiple times trying to get through to him. Apparently Self gave him a really hard time after the Oklahoma State loss to end the regular season. Since that loss, Newman has been a new man. All leading up to this absolute gem against Duke.
Newman finished with 32 points. He hit five threes, went in and grabbed seven rebounds amongst the Blue Devil trees. Even more impressive, 26 of those points came after halftime. He scored all 13 of KU’s overtime points. He wanted the ball in his hands down the stretch, confidently stepping up to the free throw line. He was the sidekick Devonte` needed to push us one round further, but this performance was hardly sidekick at all. Newman was the alpha dog, Kansas was his team.
And the thing about this game, I mentioned it in the last post, it was like this year’s team finally facing the type of KU teams they had been compared against. “They’re not a traditional Bill Self team.” “They aren’t as talented as previous Bill Self teams.” Duke fit that mold. A team with size and tons of NBA talent. I mean look at this from a projected NBA Mock Draft:
Marvin Bagley – No. 2
Wendell Carter – No. 7
Gary Trent Jr. – No. 16
Grayson Allen – No. 24
Trevon Duval – No. 25
Kansas highest projected pick? Devonte` Graham… in the middle of the second round. Duke was the No. 3 rebounding team in the country, No. 1 in offensive rebounding. Our biggest weakness was their biggest strength. Plus, they played a perplexing 2-3 zone that has stifled teams for the second half of the season.
And yet, somehow we outrebounded the Blue Devils 47-32. Svi, who’s really a three playing as a four, pulled down ten rebounds and held Bagley to just nine shots. We won the offensive rebound battle 17-10. We never win the rebounding battle. And we were doing this with a hobbled Udoka who looked injured, and winded, and battled foul trouble.
There’s no explanation for the rebounding other than heart. The result made no logical sense. But that’s what this team has been all about.
And had that Grayson Allen shot went in, the one that rolled around the rim twice, looked like it was going down multiple times, then yeah, this team would become part of a statistic. Another chapter in the “Bill Self can’t win in the Elite Eight book.”
But that wouldn’t be the story. Not this year. Bill Self raised his fists in the air, a celebration
that looked like we had just won a national title. In the locker room, the emotions poured out in a teary speech that would make even Ol Roy say, “Hey, maybe tone it down a little.”
Self had been harder on this team than any other that I can remember. But Sunday night it felt like the finish line, they had accomplished what so many great teams before them couldn’t quite reach.
“You know I’m not that emotional,” Bill Self said battling tears before breaking into a full cry. “This is the best I’ve felt about a group, and you guys have no idea how much this means to so many people.”
Sure, Monday would be back to work. Begin the scouting report against Villanova. Practices would resume, but at that moment Self focused on what had been accomplished, what could never be taken away from this group.
“I said before: You’re going to be loved by this place forever,” Self said. “All you can do is add to it. And we’ve added to it. Now all we can do is add to it.”
And for anyone who’s followed this team all year and gone through the growing pains, who have heard Self rip into them for being soft, this next quote may be even more meaningful to the guys than the trophy they held up on stage or the nets they cut down.
“I’VE CALLED MY TEAM SOFT. THERE’S NOTHING SOFT ABOUT THEM.”
I think it was this perfect moment of unity because, for one game, the narratives of the coach and the team lined up. He always falls short of the Final Four. This team can’t make a Final Four. This will sound corny but I’m gonna say it anyway, the two were made for each other; Bill Self for these guys, and these guys for Bill Self. I think it was fitting that our Final Four “dry spell” (all of six years) wasn’t ended by a powerhouse KU team with two or three losses and little to no real blemishes on the season but instead a team similar to the 2012 Thomas Robinson squad, constantly outperforming the expectations. A team that makes a name for themselves by their heart and hustle, not their NBA Lottery projections.
IT’S FUNNY WHAT A FINAL FOUR CAN DO.
One Grayson Allen shot changes the whole knee-jerk narrative. That shot goes in and my creeping thought gains some more ground. Kansas can’t win the big boy games…
Rims out and suddenly Bill Self has made it to three Final Fours. He has a shot at a second title. Check this out, he’s won his last three games against Coach K, Coach John Calipari, and ol Roy. Four of those games took place in the NCAA Tournament.
And how impressive was winning Number 14 in the Big 12 streak? This year, the Big 12 had four teams in the Sweet 16, three in the Elite Eight. Definitely not a midmajor conference and this year may have been the toughest year of all in terms of the competition.
Bigger picture, KU as a program has been to five Final Fours since the year 2000. That’s more than Duke, Kentucky, and UCLA. Only Michigan State and North Carolina have been to more in that same time frame (6).
Now, granted, we still have some catching up to do in terms of National Championships. And our reward for beating Duke is seeing the No. 2 overall seed. The favorite to win it all.
This is a Villanova team who hasn’t even played a game yet in the tournament decided by single digits. It’s a Villanova program that has won 134 games in four years; an NCAA men’s basketball record depending on whether you vacate the Memphis wins with Derrick Rose. Three of their key guys already have played in a Final Four, Brunson/Bridges/Booth won a national title just two years ago.
The list keeps going. Villanova is the highest scoring team in the country, but they pair that with really good defense. They can beat you in a track meet or win a gritty game in the 50’s or 60’s. They have the National Player of the Year in Brunson and an NBA Lottery Pick in Mikal Bridges. Booth is an elite defender who could bother either Graham or Newman, or both. Vegas has us, again, as the underdog. The line is at 5 points.
Plus the Big East has kind of owned the NCAA Tournament.
Hey, there’s no shame in losing to Villanova…
But, like Self said, all we can do is add to it. And how sweet it would be to win a couple more.
So, I’ll leave you with this, we’ve gone over Bill Self’s record in each round of the tournament from the Round of 64 to the dreaded Elite Eight. Let’s continue. How has Bill Self done in the Round of 4, the National Semifinals?
Everything must come to an end
I wrestled with where to end this book. By extending the run into the tournament, the story ends on a down note with that loss to Villanova. And if I extend into the 2018-19 season, that’s where the Big 12 streak comes to an end. Not even a heroic ending either, but a lackluster beatdown at the hands of Oklahoma, a team that finished 7-11 in conference.
Shouldn’t we end on a more positive note?
But as you’ve seen throughout this book, there’s really no definitive beginning and end to this run. Everything starts to blend together. And there’s no blemish free season either.
So yes, this young team with Doke, Grimes, Dotson, Garrett, McCormack, Lightfoot, Agbaji, they will always be the one who ended the streak. But they also went 17-0 at home. And maybe they have a future Final Four run in them. Maybe a future National Championship.
Maybe they will be the ones to kick off a new streak.
Their story is just beginning...