As Bill Self last week shook off the confetti that had been dumped over him on the Sprint Center court after his Kansas team won the Big 12 Tournament, he paused to appreciate the elements that had enabled the moment.
And, perhaps inadvertently, he spoke to what has distinguished this KU team from those of the recent past.
“I love one-and-dones,” he said. “Hey, give me five of ’em every year.”
But, he added, there is something particularly special about “the kids who really unpack their bags” and are invested for the long haul. (Or at least not just as a fleeting, obligatory waystation to the NBA).
As much as anything else, it’s that fundamental foundational change in this year’s composition that explains how top-seeded KU purged its last two dud NCAA Tournaments by advancing to the Sweet 16 with a 73-61 wipeout of Connecticut on Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena.
“It has a different feel to me, basically most of the year,” said Self, noting, too, that most of this team also had been motivated by the hurt of the last two postseasons. “I don’t think guys that have been in the program six months or nine months probably have that same feel.”
With the abrupt KU careers of Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid and Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander having expired immediately after second-round losses in 2014 and 2015, with this year’s version of an instant would-be savior, Cheick Diallo, deemed too raw to play, these Jayhawks have had few of the NBA-bound talents they’ve recently enjoyed.
Instead, they are relegated to being a team of, ugh, veterans who didn’t leave as soon as they might have to play professionally and role players dismissed as token fill-ins when they were signed.
And they are better off for it, as reiterated in the forensics of their victory over the Huskies.
It wasn’t just that Perry Ellis, of the rare species known as a senior star, had 21 points and eight rebounds.
Or that junior Wayne Selden, who might well have left a year ago and might as well not have played (zero points) in KU’s loss to Wichita State last season, had 22 including yet another show-stopping dunk.
With 13 (Ellis) and 12 (Selden) in the first half, in fact, those two alone outscored Connecticut (24).
But this also was about the impassioned, grinding play of fifth-year senior Jamari Traylor and Landen Lucas, a fourth-year junior.
The duo jumpstarted KU to a 44-24 halftime lead with lunchpail stuff: rebounds and defense.
Lucas, who set the tone by blocking UConn’s first shot, had 12 rebounds as KU outdid the Huskies 44-24 on the boards.
And his mentality explains something about the difference in the core collective personality of this group.
“I prefer rebounds (to points) by far,” said Lucas, who scored six points, “Point for most people are rebounds for me.”
Not that there wasn’t any glitz in the play of Lucas and Traylor.
They blocked three shots apiece, including two within seconds of each other by Traylor on UConn’s Jalen Adams — who might have been forgiven if he just went fetal each time he hit the floor after the humbling snuffs.
All of this may or may not reveal any broader truth about the allure and dilemma of what to do with the players who are basically too good to stay long.
You can’t blame any coach for being mesmerized by the talent.
But there always will be a degree of fool’s gold in that, too.
And you need only point to the examples of Wiggins managing four points in Kansas’ 60-57 loss to Stanford in the 2014 tournament and Oubre’s lackadaisical stamp on KU’s loss to Wichita State last season.
In a telling moment, Oubre was outhustled to a loose ball he was easily positioned to nab during a game in which he was consistently distracted by fans.
Not that this makes him a bad guy, of course.
But those signatures on his last game at KU were reminders about the downsides of the one-and-done: immaturity and, inherent in the knowledge they will soon be departing, less of a team mentality.
Meanwhile, what’s made this team go is its versatile ways of scoring, unselfishness in sharing the ball and defense that has been intensifying all season.
It became so daunting Saturday that at one point a beaten Selden apparently only had to scream to get an airball out of Daniel Hamilton.
“We couldn’t run our plays,” Connecticut’s Omar Calhoun said.
These are the earmarks of a different sort of emphasis in the players’ mindsets.
What’s also made this team go is Self’s decision to use two point guards, Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham, a longtime trademark priority of his that he got away from with Wiggins and Oubre at his disposal.
It’s also telling that if there was a turning point to the season, it came when KU had lost three of five.
Self met with his players and determined that Lucas should start because of his skills with, well, the dirty work.
Detractors wondered if that might have been the point of the season to go all-in on Diallo and force-feed his development.
But Self couldn’t bring himself to do that, believing Diallo just too far away, and now it seems that decision has been validated.
It may need more vindication ahead, of course, if KU doesn’t at least make the Final Four.
However it all plays out, though, the season to date has been testimony to the fact the game still rewards team play more than individual stardom … irresistible as one-and-dones may be.
Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian