Kansas associate athletic director Jim Marchiony has attended all but one Final Four since 1982, and for five years with the NCAA, he was media coordinator of the NCAA Tournament as it was morphing from an event into a spectacle.
Even so, amid the buzz and lights and music and moving parts and sheer pageantry crackling in a crowd of 68,257, he smiled and shook his head in amazement just before Kansas and Villanova tipped off in the national semifinals on Saturday night at the Alamodome.
A few feet away, with alternately radiant and serene looks on her face, sat the mother of KU sophomore Udoka Azubuike, Florence. And just how in the world was she supposed to process this?
Before late Friday night, she hadn’t so much as seen her son since putting a Bible in his hands six years ago as he left Nigeria for a chance at a better life — in part through this game she had never seen before her somewhat unfathomable impromptu journey from Delta, Nigeria, in the last few days.
“She doesn’t know anything about basketball,” Azubuike said as he awaited her arrival Friday night. “She really doesn’t understand it.”
This first glimpse had a chance to be a beautiful thing, one of the best stories of the tournament.
Only for pesky reality to get in the way.
She didn’t have to know the game to know this: From virtually the second her son scored the first basket of the game, Kansas was utterly overmatched on the way to being vaporized 95-79 by Villanova — which crumpled up the end of KU’s season for the second time in three years.
With a preposterous hail of three-pointers (18!), the most ever in a Final Four game, Villanova stamped an anticlimactic exclamation point on a season of wild emotional swings for Kansas.
Leaving the beholder with this: a team that properly should be remembered as both overachieving and exasperating.
If it’s possible to reconcile both those sentiments, coach Bill Self seemed about there after the game.
Even as he acknowledged Villanova’s superiority and that it was less than the “fairy tale” night it might have been with Azubuike’s mother on hand (not to mention Self’s own ailing father in the stands for the first time in months), Self disputed the premise that this had even really been a sour end for a team he saw come as far as any he can remember.
“We did not have the perfect roster in many ways, probably, to win 31 games and win … a great league and conference tournament and get to the Final Four, in a lot of ways,” Self said. “And to be honest with you, it felt like today it just kind of caught up to us.”
The Jayhawks had sent tremors through their fan base at times, suffering an apocalyptic three defeats at Allen Fieldhouse and the unexpected loss of presumptive star Billy Preston, navigating an obvious lack of depth and for stretches just being soft as cotton candy in the eyes of Self.
Then, shazam, Self summoned something special out of this group.
Next thing you know, they’re winning, ho-hum, their 14th straight Big 12 title and the Big 12 tournament and seizing a No. 1 seed and a favorable bracket map that placed them in Wichita and Omaha and funneled them into the instant classic against Duke last week.
In the moments after that game, an 85-81 overtime win, Self was as emotional and demonstrative as he’s ever been — even during a career that has included the 2008 national championship among many special moments and featured lows of first-round losses and the torture of seven losses in Elite Eight games, including the previous two years.
After the Duke game and a span of moments in the locker room during which his voice quivered, his eyes watered, he put his face in a towel and cleared his throat, Self told his players this team will be “loved by this place forever; all you can do is add to it.”
No doubt he meant that in the euphoria of the moment.
But no doubt it was something he had to work to walk back a few days later when he met with media upon KU's arrival in San Antonio.
“Somebody said yesterday, ‘You’ll be remembered forever for making a Final Four,’ ” he said, smiling. “No, you won’t. Not at Kansas. You’ll be remembered forever if you win it.”
Fuse his thoughts together, and, well, you have a legacy that might be loved but not remembered the way the immortals who won titles are.
And that’s a shame for the likes of seniors Svi Mykhailiuk and Devonte' Graham, who buried his head in Self’s shoulder and sobbed when he left the game.
“I just knew it was my last time coming off the court in a Kansas uniform,” Graham said, “and just got really emotional.”
Same, of course, with Azubuike, who called the loss “an awful and bitter feeling” and could scarcely muster a smile at the thought of being reunited with his mother.
“It was a good feeling,” he managed to utter. “I just wish it was a better result.”
That’s a perspective that Self will carry from this season.
And maybe all the more so as he considered the meaning of Azubuike’s mother being here despite the disappointing result.
“It’s just amazing to me how so many good things can come out of competition,” Self said. “And who would have thought that winning and having a chance to play at the highest level would allow a mother and her son to reconnect after six years?
“That’s the only way they would have. So there’s no telling how long they would have gone without ever seeing each other. That was a proud moment for all of us.”
Never mind that what she learned about the game wasn’t exactly what her son would have most wanted her to see.