A chiseled, 6-foot-5 body tumbled to the ground and thudded across the wooden floor here at the CenturyLink Center on Sunday night.
From a distance of 10 feet away, you could see Wayne Selden’s chest rake the ground. You could hear him let out a desperate grunt. You could see Wichita State’s Tekele Cotton racing the other way, into the distance, another layup at the rim as the lead pushed to 12 points with 4:39 on the clock.
This was just one moment from Sunday night, just an eight-second clip from No. 2 seed Kansas’ 78-65 loss to No. 7 Wichita State in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32. But perhaps it was more. Here was a former five-star recruit getting stripped in the lane by a senior guard who was once a no-star recruit. Here was a Kansas offense struggling to put the ball in the basket yet again. Here was a once-promising season, falling apart before the Sweet 16 for the second straight season.
“It’s terrible when you have so much high hopes for your season, and it’s just done,” Kansas junior forward Jamari Traylor said, sitting in a still and silent locker room.
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By late on Sunday evening, the Kansas Jayhawks leaned back in chairs and slumped their shoulders and shook their heads and looked to the ceiling. This was not how they envisioned this night, the first game against Wichita State in 22 years. This was not how they envisioned this NCAA Tournament, another early exit. This was not how they envisioned this season — a year that began in the preseason top 10 with fans dreaming of a team capable of another Final Four run.
“Perspectivewise,” Kansas coach Bill Self said, “there’s no way I’ll say it was a great year.”
More than five months ago, the Jayhawks gathered inside Allen Fieldhouse for their first practice. They had lost two lottery picks off last year’s team, but they had replaced them with a freshman class that featured swingman Kelly Oubre and power forward Cliff Alexander, two players that might one day play for money. They lacked the sheer star-power of last year, and in those weeks, Self warned that his team might not look as potent when they stepped off the bus. But as the season approached, Self made it clear. When it was all over, he said, this group could be a better college basketball team.
“We had so much talent,” Selden said.
By late Sunday night, that grand hope had mostly faded. Alexander was back at home after an NCAA investigation derailed his season. Forward Perry Ellis was slowed in the season’s final weeks by a knee sprain. Self’s vaunted high-low, inside-out style never seemed to mesh with a roster that featured limited scoring options in the low post.
Against Wichita State, the Jayhawks shot just 35.1 percent overall and 38 percent inside the three-point line against a Wichita State team that started 6-foot-4 Evan Wessel and 6-foot-7 Darius Carter in the frontcourt. Ellis had 17 points and eight rebounds, but most of his production came at the free-throw line after he absorbed an elbow to the face late in the first half.
To make the offensive struggles worse, Oubre (nine points) and sophomore wing Wayne Selden (zero points and two turnovers) were being thoroughly outclassed by the Shockers’ wing tandem of Cotton and Ron Baker. By the second half, the Jayhawks’ offense was essentially point guards Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham just trying to survive and make plays. Wichita State outscored Kansas 28-20 in the paint.
“I thought they never lost their poise,” Self said of Wichita State. “And I thought we did lose ours.”
When the Jayhawks arrived at the CenturyLink Center on Sunday afternoon, the KU coaching staff had sketched together a game plan that focused on exploiting Wichita State in the paint. By halftime, as Wichita Stat surged to a 29-26 lead, the Jayhawks had scored just six points in the paint and finished with one shot at the rim.
“It was 100 percent to go inside-out, and we didn’t execute that,” said sophomore big man Landen Lucas, who had two points and just two field-goal attempts. “That’s partially on me. I was a non-factor against a team where I should have been more of an offensive factor.”
For Self and Kansas, of course, this was a season-long trend. In 11 previous seasons, Self’s KU teams had never shot worse than 50.8 percent inside the three-point line. This year, Kansas made just 46.4 percent.
“It just takes a team that knows what they’re doing,” said Oubre, who projects as a potential lottery pick and may have played his last game for Kansas. “It just takes a team that’s willing to give it their all for 40 minutes. We struggled with that, this whole season, putting together 40-minute games. And it’s something that I do believe a veteran team knows how to do.”
As Self reflects on this season, which included an 11th-straight Big 12 title and a 27-9 record, there are many things to consider. This was a bitter end, but the NCAA Tournament can be cruel. Maybe Alexander didn’t develop as anticipated. Perhaps the Jayhawks’ inconsistencies were born from their youth. Maybe Kansas expected more offense from Selden, whose scoring averaged dipped during his sophomore season.
“It’s not going to be the most pleasant of the next few weeks for me personally, obviously,” Self said. “But it doesn’t deserve to be. Our team didn’t play very good today, and it all starts with me.”
Moments later, Self stepped back into the Kansas locker room and reached for a plate of food. As Kansas staffers cleaned out the locker room, the Jayhawks remained seated on a far wall, still in silence, still processing how it all went wrong.
“I hate to say it,” Lucas said, “but I think they might have wanted it a little bit more than we did. I think that we came into this game thinking that we did, but if you look at the small things, when it really mattered, the loose balls, the extra possessions, executing, listening to coach, focus, that all came into play.
“I think that a veteran team just came out and took the game. So I credit them, too, but it also (stinks) losing that way.”