The final seconds ticked down. Thomas Robinson clasped his hands in front of his face. The Morris twins dabbed tears from stunned eyes. The day was March 27, 2011, a Sunday afternoon at the Alamodome in San Antonio, and the shock was just setting in. That same old pit in the stomach had returned, a mix of agony and torment and regret.
Four seconds left.
Kansas senior Tyrel Reed hauled down a rebound and dribbled to the corner, clanging one final shot off the iron as the buzzer sounded and a young coach named Shaka Smart turned and looked for someone to hug.
The 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth Rams had knocked off top-seeded Kansas 71-61 in the Elite Eight, a dizzying defeat for a program that had suffered a similar fate at the hands of Northern Iowa just one year earlier.
“A team that’s playing with house money,” television analyst Steve Kerr would say as VCU put the finishing touches on the upset of the tournament.
Kim English was just a freshman, a kid from Baltimore with three more years on the Mizzou campus ahead of him, but that couldn’t take the sting away. The day was March 28, 2009, a Saturday night inside University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., and the disappointment was already piercing as fellow Missouri freshman Marcus Denmon stared helplessly from the bench.
The third-seeded Tigers were going down to No. 1 seed Connecticut in the Elite Eight. For the fourth time in school history, Missouri had advanced to the brink of the Final Four and come up empty, hitting a physical and mental wall. And once again, a proud program with conference titles and All-American players had missed out on the validation that only a Final Four can bring.
The Tigers were so close, English recalls, but they just couldn’t finish. In the final eight minutes, a 54-54 game turned into an 82-75 loss.
“That game,” English says, “crushed me.”
In the moments after the NCAA Tournament bracket was unveiled on Sunday evening, the examination began. Paths were envisioned. Potential matchups were studied.
For Kansas and Missouri, two old rivals connected by geography and history, the paths have taken on a familiar shape. If Kansas wants to emerge from the Midwest region, and advance to its 14th Final Four, the Jayhawks will likely have to survive another battle with a mid-major program with nothing to lose.
“We know what it’s like,” senior guard Tyshawn Taylor says. “We know how it feels to lose a game you’re not supposed to lose.
“None of us want to have that feeling again.
For the Tigers, the story is different — but the hurdle remains just as daunting. These Tigers can make their case as the best team in school history with a run to New Orleans. But first, they’ll have to smash the program’s Elite Eight stigma.
“If we’re fortunate to get back there,” English said. “We’d try our best to win the game."
So here comes a March that few expected: Kansas remaining a Final Four contender in a supposed down year, and Missouri claiming a No. 2 seed with a coach that few fans wanted.
It’s not so hard to imagine that the Jayhawks or Tigers — or maybe even both — could be descending on Bourbon Street when the Final Four tips off in New Orleans on March 31. But as the road begins, perhaps KU and Mizzou could learn something from the players who have traveled these paths before.
The story begins like this: It’s March 1976 in Louisville, Ky. The Missouri Tigers are just a few minutes from their first Final Four. Willie Smith, a 6-foot-2 senior guard, is playing the game of his life. And Mizzou has a narrow lead over a formidable Michigan squad coached by Johnny Orr.
Former Missouri forward Kim Anderson remembers all of this. And he also remembers what happened next, when Missouri coach Norm Stewart gathered the team together during a timeout.
“Coach said, ‘Hey, what do you guys think?’ ” Anderson says now. “ ‘You want to try to hold it? Or do you want to keep playing?’ And we said we wanted to keep playing.”
There was no shot clock back then, and the Tigers could have put their offense in neutral and tried to squeeze some seconds off the block. But Missouri pressed on, and Michigan left Louisville with a 95-88 victory — despite 43 points from Smith.
“Not a good decision,” Anderson says.
This story, of course, is more than 35 years old now. And Anderson says he’s thought about that tournament run for years. On occasion, he’s discussed it with Stewart. Smith was a senior that year, but the Tigers had plenty coming back the next season.
“Being young and being naïve,” Anderson says, “You think well, we’ll just come back and do it next year.”
These days, as the head coach of a Division II Central Missouri program that has made its own postseason runs, Anderson’s perspective has changed. Mizzou has made just three more Elite Eights in the past 35 seasons, an average of fewer than one every decade.
Opportunities are precious. Special teams only come along so often. And you have to seize the moment in March.
“You kind of realize how hard it is to go,” Anderson says now. “Not everybody gets to go.”
Twenty years later, you can still find the old highlight on YouTube. KU coach Roy Williams is in a daze, weaving around the court in Dayton, Ohio, not sure what to do. His No. 1-seeded Jayhawks, with players who had reached the NCAA championship game the year before, have just been toppled by an unheralded squad from Texas-El Paso.
Steve Woodberry was a sophomore on that team, and he can still remember the feeling from that night. UTEP kept hanging around, and it felt like Kansas was playing with weighted shoes.
“You start to tighten up,” Woodberry says.
If there’s a lesson to be learned, Woodberry says, it’s that everyone must be in sync. If there’s even a slight fracture in the locker room, a team will break apart under March’s intimidating glare.
“Everybody wasn’t clicking together,” says Woodberry, now an assistant at Missouri State. “We sat down after the season, and there were some things that we talked about, that should have been aired out before the tournament.”
He was a freshman, the little brother to a solid group of upperclassmen, and Kelly Thames was right where he wanted to be. Growing up in St. Louis, Thames had dreamed of playing for his state school, of leading them on a long NCAA run.
So as the Tigers advanced through the bracket in March 1994, Thames kept coming back to one thought: “Man, we may have to do this every year!”
The Tigers had rolled through the Big Eight with an undefeated record, the first Missouri team to do so. They were rewarded with a No. 1 seed in the West region. And on a senior-dominated team that featured Melvin Booker, the Big Eight player of the year, Thames was the only freshman starter.
“No egos,” Thames says, “Everybody on the team liked each other.”
In the regional semifinal in Los Angeles, Thames had 24 points as Missouri edged Syracuse in overtime. The Tigers were in the Elite Eight for the first time since ’76, and there should have been joy. But in Thames’ mind, the Tigers never recovered from that victory over Syracuse. In March, he says, one game can affect another. And Missouri’s tired legs showed up in a 92-72 loss against No. 2 seed Arizona.
“I think we probably had a lag from that [Syracuse] game,” Thames said. “It kind of hurts sometimes.”
Missouri would return to the Elite Eight again in 2002, an unlikely run with Kareem Rush leading the way and Quin Snyder on the sidelines. But 1994 was Stewart’s last, best chance.
Thames is a high school coach in the St. Louis area now, and he’d like to see Missouri finally break through. It’s time, he says. He sees a few familiar traits in this year’s Tigers: a team that shares the ball, no egos, five players that fit together. But as Thames will tell you, there’s a difference between winning in February … and winning in March.
“Every possession in one game is going to be magnified,” Thames said. “Pay attention to detail. One mess-up can probably cost you a game.”
When the final buzzer sounded, there was only silence and tears.
“Nothing had to be said,” former KU center Scot Pollard says. “We all knew.”
The day was March 21, 1997, and the Sweet 16 opponent was Arizona, a team that had finished fifth in the Pac-10 that year. Meanwhile, No. 1 seed Kansas entered the day 34-1, with six future NBA players on the roster.
They were a team of destiny, Pollard says, a group that should have gone down as one of the greats. Instead, the Jayhawks fell 85-82 to the eventual national champions in Birmingham, Ala., a heartbreaker that still stands, perhaps, as the most devastating March collapse in KU history.
“I think if we played them 10 more times,” Pollard says, “we’d beat them 10 out of 10. But on that particular night, they were better than we were.”
The next year, with two All-Americans and another No. 1 seed, the Jayhawks again bowed out early, this time against Rhode Island in the second round. The story, former KU guard Ryan Robertson says, was the same. Kansas played tight. And Rhode Island’s guards played free.
“It’s not just Kansas,” Robertson says. “It’s the reason No. 1 seeds get beat in the Sweet 16 and the second round all the time. It’ll happen this year. It’ll happen down the road.”
Sometimes, you come across a team that can’t miss. Sometimes the higher seed tightens up. Sometimes a star player going for 43 points isn’t enough.
In some ways, KU’s Pollard says, the secret to winning in March is understanding that there is no secret. Only preparation and luck — and the hope that a player from Northern Iowa or VCU or Arizona doesn’t play the game of his life when your team walks on the floor.
“It’s not a seven-game series,” Pollard says. “It’s one-and-done. And if you’re not there every single night for six nights in a row in the NCAA Tournament …”
Pollard’s voice trails off. He knows what comes next. And so do today’s players from Kansas and Missouri. One team carries the weight of a history of Final Fours and championships — and early-round exits. One carries the burden of having never played on college basketball’s biggest stage. And now, the madness.
“Last year was the worst feeling,” KU’s Taylor says. “We weren’t focused (against VCU). You better come out focused every time you play from now on … or it’s over.”