NCAA Tournament

March 23, 2014

Kansas’ loss a missed opportunity that had season-long roots

The second-seeded Kansas Jayhawks lost 60-57 on Sunday in the round of 32 to Stanford, a No. 10 seed that last played in this tournament six years ago. They should’ve been so much better than this. They could’ve been remembered as the fun-loving stars who grew together and lived up to one of the sport’s elite brand names.

An opportunity gone forever is a locker room full of friends trying to make sense of it all.

They are mostly silent. When they speak, their voices are hushed. Stunned. Maybe the anger will come later. Maybe the answers will come later.

For now, they are bonded by a very public failure, this Kansas basketball team full of future millionaires and led by a $50 million coach now reduced to another early loss in the NCAA Tournament.

Bill Self did not have the answers he is paid to have. Andrew Wiggins did not have the game he will soon be paid to have.

They should’ve been so much better than this. They could’ve been remembered as the fun-loving stars who grew together and lived up to one of the sport’s elite brand names. Instead, they will be a short clip of pain in the “One Shining Moment” montage that plays in two weeks after the national championship game they could’ve been part of.

“I really messed up today,” Wiggins says. “I let people down.”

“A lot of it will be put on him, or me,” Self says. “I guess that’s the way it should be.”

The second-seeded Jayhawks lost 60-57 in the round of 32 to Stanford, a No. 10 seed that last played in this tournament six years ago.

The problems in this particular game are specific. Self did a rotten job adjusting to Stanford’s zone defense, in putting his talented players in position for easy baskets, and in letting the Cardinal control the pace.

Wiggins played tentative, nervous, like the moment was too big. Each of his teammates, save Tarik Black and Conner Frankamp, played most of the game like it was someone else’s job to make a difference.

They are out of chances now. This group will never be together again. Reunions are for champions.

Wiggins will be in the NBA next year. Joel Embiid, whose back was perhaps just a few days from being strong enough to play, will probably also enter the draft. Wayne Selden may join them.

So this team is done, forever, Self’s most talented group left to be remembered for what it didn’t accomplish instead of what it did. They are underachievers, even with the program’s 10th consecutive Big 12 regular-season championship.

The label fits, too, a group effort that wasn’t good enough for the team’s collective talents or the standards of Kansas basketball.

The particular failures against Stanford rest comfortably in the problems that simmered all season. Some will point to Embiid’s absence the last six games. Many will blame Self and Wiggins, because they are this team’s biggest stars.

There is truth and fairness in that, but this loss had roots that

took hold throughout a season

with so many twists and turns.

Wiggins, called an “alpha dog” by Self when he signed with Kansas, played with a focus and edge that took unpredictable breaks throughout the season. Wiggins has a superstar’s talent, but at times a role player’s mindset.

Self fought that for most of the season, spending chunks of practice and conversations off the court trying to push his star’s buttons. In the last month or so, the coach decided that was the wrong tact and tried to embrace Wiggins’ emotional consistency.

But with Embiid out, the Jayhawks clearly needed Wiggins to give a little bit more. He seemed to welcome that, finally, going for 112 points on 69 shots the last four games without Embiid.

But with so much on the line Sunday, Wiggins played his worst game of the season. Four points. One of six shooting. Four turnovers.

“I should’ve stepped up,” he says. “I should’ve done more for my team, but I didn’t. So it’s on me.”

Point guard play also let the Jayhawks down, again. Naadir Tharpe scored five points on two-of-eight shooting, with two turnovers and two assists.

Tharpe’s progress has been a milemarker all season for the Jayhawks, Self saying over and over again — in private and in public — that for the team to be great Tharpe has to be very good. But

the junior guard never fully took hold of the team

, no matter how hard both he and his coach tried to make that happen.

Self’s teams have always been at their best with hard defensive pressure on the perimeter and a point guard who can make easy plays for his teammates. Tharpe had his moments, but never consistently, and that’s on both him and Self for needing too much from the 92nd-rated player of his high school class.

“We just couldn’t get over the hump, you know?” Tharpe says.

“We couldn’t get any rhythm offensively,” Self says. “Their length bothered us the whole game.”

There are more problems we can overanalyze in this particular game. Three KU players took their third foul within the first 90 seconds of the second half. They missed more shots than they made around the rim. They never adjusted to Stanford’s size, never consistently attacked the Cardinal’s zone defense from the inside.

Kansas never got in front of its problems, at least not consistently. Self is fond of saying that you get what you deserve, not what you think you deserve, and this was always a group chasing what they thought they deserved.

Self is usually very good at knowing what to expect from a particular team. He thought this group would win games with athleticism, energy, aggressiveness.

As the season wore on, it became clear he misjudged some of that. Defensively, perhaps most of all, the Jayhawks couldn’t apply the kind of pressure that creates run-out dunks and can change games. The aggressiveness came in and out as well, personified by Wiggins but embodied by many.

One pleasant surprise, though, was that this group seemed to take on a common understanding about what was required on any given night. Self’s teams usually play like lions, fierce and loud, but they navigated their way to the championship of the nation’s toughest conference playing more like chameleons.

They won some games with guts, many with talent, and others with size. They lost 10 games, more than any of Self’s other teams at Kansas, but they probably found more different ways to win, too.

But if Wiggins’ dynamic talent and this group’s collective savvy were the Jayhawks’ best assets, neither of their primary strengths showed up in the season’s most important moment.

Wiggins, Embiid and Selden have bigger things ahead of them. Self will have more chances, too. But not with this group.

These Jayhawks have a lot to be proud of, most notably another conference championship. But together, they will always be remembered for what they failed to do.

Which is how it should be.

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