The little brother thing is an empty lie. That’s been true for at least a few years now, but geography and history mean that Wichita State and Kansas fit the character types, so the myth needed to be killed here, once and for all.
The funeral was in a cramped locker room the size of the lane on a basketball court. This is where the Kansas basketball players tried to make sense of a 78-65 loss to Wichita State in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32 here on Sunday.
One player hid his tears with a towel. Another used his hands. Others stared into the ground, the same blank looks of guys in these same uniforms after past losses to Northern Iowa and Bradley and Bucknell.
“It’s the worst nightmare for us,” says KU point guard Frank Mason.
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There is shame in this loss, but not for the obvious reason you might think. This has nothing to do with Wichita State. Or, actually, it has everything to do with Wichita State. Because the Shockers aren’t Northern Iowa (2010), Bradley (2006) or Bucknell (2005). Wichita State is a very good program, two years removed from a Final Four and a year removed from a 35-1 season.
We are well past the point of Wichita being fairly or honestly looked at as the the pimple-faced kid trying to live up to his older stud brother. By Sunday, the sportsbooks in Las Vegas made the Shockers a small betting favorite.
So losing to Wichita State isn’t a shame, any more than losing to any good program is a shame. But losing early, again, and shrinking in the moment — that’s what will stick with this team. That’s what their last memory of playing together will be.
This is the second consecutive season that Kansas, with its future millionaire players and eight-figure coach and proud history, has taken a No. 2 seed and failed to make it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Last year, at least, the Jayhawks were without Joel Embiid, the eventual third overall pick in the NBA Draft. This year, they just got beat by a tougher, smarter, more poised and better team.
“It’s not going to be the most pleasant next few weeks for me, personally,” KU coach Bill Self says. “But it doesn’t deserve to be. Our team didn’t play very well, and it all starts with me.”
This one has to eat at Self in a personal way. He had been very open about how the attention and storylines of facing an in-state school he hasn’t scheduled made this bigger to him than a typical tournament game.
There is no question he wanted this one with a particular passion. The Jayhawks led by eight with five minutes left in the first half. Which had to make watching his team fall apart over the last 25 minutes hurt even more.
Self’s entire coaching worldview is centered on toughness, and this goes well beyond biceps and squats. Self’s preferred brand of toughness is more mental than physical, the ability to remember assignments in the middle of chaos and to never let one bad play grow into two by pouting or panicking.
On those points, the Jayhawks were awful. This was far from the best or most talented team Self has had during this 11-year run of Big 12 regular season titles. But they made an identity for themselves in sweat and adaptability and hustle. They vastly improved defensively.
Kansas recruits some of the best high school players in the country, but Self has built the country’s most stable national power by convincing that talent about the virtues of defense and the value of the hidden extra possessions to be had through hustle and smarts.
You would’ve had no idea about any of this watching the last 25 minutes against Wichita.
KU took terrible shots. Some of them were rushed, others not in the offense. A few times, the Jayhawks forced shots into sound defense. More troublesome, the Jayhawks did virtually nothing to make the game difficult for Wichita after halftime.
Over the first 15 minutes, the Shockers scored 16 points on 29 percent shooting. Over the last 25 minutes, they scored 62 points on 59 percent shooting.
It was, basically, a replay of the Big 12 tournament final loss — so much so that Self opened his postgame press conference by congratulating Iowa State, before correcting himself to Wichita State.
“It’s frustrating that we let something that happened before happen again,” says Kelly Oubre, the star freshman.
It’s telling that Oubre says it like that, too — that the Jayhawks let something happen to them.
In the quiet locker room, Landen Lucas said the Shockers “wanted it a little bit more than we did.” He talked about loose balls and sticking to what they talked about before the game — all of these things that Self inventories as toughness — letting them down.
Mason got more specific. At least four times in talking with reporters, he said the Jayhawks consistently blew defensive assignments. They had been drilled to trap certain players, especially on ball screens, and that just didn’t happen.
I asked if there was something Wichita did to cause that. Maybe they moved the ball quicker than KU expected. Mason shook his head.
“That was just on us, on our own,” he says. “Guys didn’t remember what to do.”
This team had some promising moments this season, and in a different world those would take more focus. KU won the Big 12 outright, and the league has done a rotten job showing it but was stronger than it has been in years. Mason and Oubre, in particular, made big improvement individually.
They had to change the way they play as much as any team Self has had in Lawrence, and did it against the nation’s toughest schedule. The comeback against West Virginia was incredible, and Cliff Alexander’s eligibility drama left them scrambling the last month or so.
But those are the kinds of things that only play well for teams that make it further in the tournament. This is the fifth KU team in the run of league titles to lose in the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend, which means five groups remembered more for one game’s disappointment than three months’ success. The standards are higher at Kansas, and nobody joins the program without understanding that.
The easy thing is to say that Kansas should never lose to Wichita State because of recruiting rankings and budgets and television exposure. And there will be some of that, particularly in the national media painting in broader strokes. But the truth is worse than that, more personal than that.
The truth is that Self’s team got beat by a group of inferior recruits who better embodied the toughness he always stresses.