A day later, and still no comfort. There is no telling how quickly this will change. The end is almost always a brutal beast for the best basketball programs. Early endings are especially rough, and there is enough in this one to drive everyone around Kansas basketball mad.
NCAA Tournament games — and the reputations that are built within them — are decided without safety nets. Kansas plunged in an overtime loss to Michigan in the Sweet 16 on Friday, carving new pain in a proud program’s history. Just in the Bill Self years, there is Ali Farokhmanesh and VCU and Bucknell and Bradley and now the game of Trey Burke’s rise andElijah Johnson’s fall
Burke’s 28-footer. Johnson’s turnovers and a cheap shot to a Michigan player’s groin.
“People usually remember the end,” Johnson said in a quiet locker room afterward.
The Jayhawks wonan absurd ninth consecutive Big 12 regular-season championship this year, plus the conference tournament. This is the fourth straight season they won at least 31 games. There is so much to be proud of. But Self puts it well when he says you can have a great season based on everything else, but you have to advance in the NCAA Tournament to make it special
And at Kansas, the expectation is alwaysspecial
This particular team is in the peculiar place of both overachieving and underachieving in the same season. Ben McLemore went from a talented partial qualifier to potentially one of the first picks in the NBA Draft. Jeff Withey was college basketball’s most disruptive defensive force. The Jayhawks lost their two best players from a team that reached the national final, and at one point three straight games, but still earned a No. 1 seed in an unpredictable year of college basketball. That’s the part Self is talking about when he says “great season.”
But then, thespecial
part is missing, and there’s no getting it back. Michigan is a good team that was ranked No. 1 in the country at one point. Burke might be the sport’s best player. But the Jayhawks led by as many as 14 points in the second half. They were up 10 with fewer than 3 minutes left, and by eight with fewer than 1:30 left.
This was a string of mistakes by everyone involved — Johnson’s turnovers, Self’s coaching and a general lack of assertiveness by the others — that created one of the most stunning collapses in recent NCAA Tournament history. There is no escaping that.
Kansas has been on the other side, of course. That’s how a program builds itself into one of the nation’s true powers. They won the national championship five years ago. Played in the final last April. Those are the teams fans remember the most, the ones immortalized with banners.
Those Jayhawks looked beautiful in this harsh light. The lack of a safety net suited them just fine. In 2008, Davidson missed the shot and Memphis shrunk in the moment. Last year, Johnson hit the shot against Purdue and the Jayhawks didn’t lose until playing Kentucky, one of the best teams in recent college basketball history.
Those high timeschanged the way a lot of people viewed Kansas basketball
. The Bucknell jokes faded, and in their place came the image of Self as the cool, brilliant, fierce and adjust-to-anything face of a powerhouse program on a remarkable run of success.
Assuming McLemore enters the draft, Kansas will replace its entire starting lineup for the first time since the 2008 national championship team moved on. Four top high school players are coming in, andthe nation’s No. 1 recruit
might join them. The delicate and brutal reality is that college basketball doesn’t allow second chances. Teams change too much, and too quickly, for that.
Kansas basketball won’t stop, of course. Expectations won’t change. A new team hopes to push an old program to a better ending.
Practice starts in six months.