This is the moment that has left them in tears, but here is Wayne Selden leaping over a row of chairs to hug his uncle. This is the moment that has left them slumped and muttering about missed chances, but here is Devonte Graham smiling as he slaps hands with fans on his way into a winners’ locker room.
This is the moment in which Andrew Wiggins failed, and Kelly Oubre too, and, yes, Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden and Frank Mason. But here the Jayhawks are, choking out another win instead of hearing that verb used against them — making it through a moment that’s been a nasty trap for them these last two years.
Kansas, the top overall seed in this NCAA Tournament, beat UConn — talented but ultimately overmatched — 73-61 in advancing to the Sweet 16 here on Saturday. There are few contexts where that is noteworthy, but here’s one:
KU, one of the historical giants of this sport, has lost this game in each of the past two tournaments, once with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and once with a No. 2 seed against a mid-major program the fans like to think of as their in-state little brother.
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“My younger guys never been this far,” KU senior Jamari Traylor said.
“Some guys do think about it,” junior point guard Mason said.
This tournament is America’s greatest sports event largely because of its unpredictability and emotional stakes, which makes grand judgments based on one year silly. But at some point between Mario Chalmers’ shot in 2008 and Thomas Robinson’s push to the 2012 final and Wiggins’ four points — four! — in the 2014 loss, this became A Thing — Kansas wins regular-season conference championships, and then is someone else’s trophy win in March.
Making it out of the first weekend is not the end, or at least it can’t be the end for this team to be remembered the way it wants. But it can’t be remembered the way it wants without making it through this moment, and if these players are honest, they remembered and cursed every bit of that pain from the last two years.
“We might have downplayed a little bit the pressure of this game,” center Landen Lucas said. “The last couple years have been tough. It’s in the back of your mind no matter what.”
This tournament made “survive and advance” mainstream. What happens in this round doesn’t necessarily mean a thing in the next round. Kansas fans can remember nervous moments in the early rounds of what turned out to be Final Four runs, and feelings of comfort that came the game before a gut punch.
So this isn’t a predictor as much as an observation: this team does not seem constrained by the tensions and pressures and failures of the past.
As much as anything else, the NCAA Tournament is about handling the moment. That’s a vague concept, of course, and can be used retroactively to explain the otherwise unexplainable. Maybe that’s what this column is doing.
But this team has not yet met a moment too big, and its perfect record since last November in games decided by 10 points or less indicates the Jayhawks may be the ones making the moment too big for the other side.
Playing at Kansas means playing under a spotlight that can melt, and that’s not for everyone. At times, it hasn’t been for some of the guys on this team. But the transformation of this group — not just since the beginning of the season, but within a core that’s been together for three years — is undeniable.
It’s in Graham growing into the team’s voice, in Mason finding the right amount of aggression, and in Selden effectively yelling the man he’s guarding into an airball. Heck, you can see it in Graham slinging a one-handed lob pass four feet from the basket and watching Selden grab it with one hand for what is becoming a regular appearance near the top of the day’s highlights.
In the past, the Jayhawks have played tight in these moments. They haven’t been whole for either of the last two tournament losses, but that doesn’t explain freezing against Stanford and backing down against Wichita State.
Playing this way — aggressive, free and sure — has to mean something. It is a hard thing to balance, playing hard with playing loose, especially at the top level of college basketball. It is nearly impossible to do it in this tournament, and recent history with the Jayhawks is proof. Selden has said his lesson from those letdowns is that you can’t hope things will happen, you have to make things happen.
In the moments after this win, emotions settled and the conversation turned from Selden’s dunk and Lucas’ influence to Maryland and Hawaii. Lucas is fond of saying that the reason guys come to Kansas is to win in the NCAA Tournament, and he is not talking about the first weekend.
In each of the last two years, this game meant a slow walk to a depressing bus ride home. This game meant guys shifting focus away from scouting reports and toward decisions about their basketball futures. Those thoughts can wait now.
The bus ride back to Lawrence was scheduled for about three and a half hours, maybe more. They would eat, maybe watch a game or highlights on TV, and after an hour or so most expected to be asleep. They need their rest.
There are more games to play.