NCAA Tournament

A KU defeat without despair

NEW ORLEANS This time, the miracle didn’t come. The blurry comeback stopped short, so there is no shining moment and no legendary three-pointer. No picture that Kansas basketball fans will hang on their walls for years. Reality stuck around until the end.

Around the country, Kansas’ 67-59 loss to Kentucky in the NCAA championship game will be seen as validation of John Calipari’s one-and-done system. This will be Anthony Davis’ argument as one of the premier forces of recent college basketball history, and Kentucky’s application to join the best teams of the last generation.

Everywhere else, the Jayhawks will be faceless extras in Kentucky’s highlight tape.

But back in Kansas, they will be the guys who turned so many of the biggest moments into so many of their biggest triumphs, the ones who made March fun again, who rode an All-America power forward and fabulously talented point guard all the way to the very end.

“From start to finish, there’s been no team I’ve been around improved this much,” KU coach Bill Self says. “From start to finish, there’s been no team that I’ve been around compete this hard. There’s been no team I’ve been around that was able to take whatever situation is dealt and respond to it favorably.”

Thomas Robinson will be remembered forever now, his jersey soon will be hanging in Allen Fieldhouse. In so many ways, his last 15 months or so have been about the mother he lost and the little sister he now sees as his biggest responsibility. Robinson didn’t want to talk much about that, though, so instead made these last three weeks about the memories of walking back into “a locker room full of tears” after losing too early in the last two NCAA Tournaments.

“I’m just glad I got a chance to be part of this team,” Robinson says.

The tears came this time, too, but in a completely different context. This is more like a great meal that just ended without dessert.

This time, KU didn’t lose a game it should’ve won. This time, KU won four postseason games it could’ve lost before facing a team that nobody in college basketball could’ve beaten.

Kentucky starts three NBA lottery picks, and plays at least three more future millionaires. At one point in the second half, Kansas had two former walk-ons playing against five first-round picks. You could understand why virtually nobody in America thought Kansas would win this game.

Bill Self has pushed the already absurd standards at KU even higher. Eight consecutive conference championships, two Final Fours in the last five years, and the winningest six season stretch of any program in the sport’s history. Robinson was a preseason All-America pick, Taylor a four-year starting point guard, and this still might’ve been the least talented team in Self’s nine seasons.

And all things considered, with the obvious exception of the 2008 championship, this is the most satisfying season at Kansas in at least a decade.

When it comes with a loss, endings are never easy to take. Afterward, in another teary locker room, Self told his players that caring about something so much means being hurt if it doesn’t go your way. But this is the first team since Robinson arrived on campus that will be remembered more for what it accomplished than how the season ended.

The coaches and athletes will need some time, but there was a telling moment just a few minutes after the confetti poured down on Kentucky’s celebration.

This was maybe 15 minutes after the game ended. On TV, some UK fans smiled and talked on a live broadcast from Bourbon Street. Back in the Superdome, someone asked Taylor what he felt. He looked down, with eyes that showed red.

“I don’t get the chance to make it up to these guys,” he says. “It’s a bad feeling, man. I love how we fought. In a couple days, I might look back and say we had a great year. But right now it’s just a bad feeling.”

They almost pulled another one out, too, missing out on a comeback you never would’ve thought possible if you hadn’t seen this same team do it against Missouri at the Fieldhouse, Purdue in Omaha, North Carolina in St. Louis and Ohio State here just two days before.

In the beginning, Kentucky put on a nationally televised clinic. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist dunked. Anthony Davis blocked a lob pass 12 feet above the floor. Deron Lamb swooshed in for a layup. Terrence Jones dunked. Davis blocked Robinson from behind the whole thing felt a little unfair.

Of KU’s first 14 shots, Kentucky blocked four. The Jayhawks looked stunned. The guys on the floor stared blankly. The ones on the bench sat back with nothing to scream about. More than a few times, Self turned back to his assistant coaches, hands stretched out, like,

What can we do?

At halftime, someone on the national broadcast declared Kentucky national champions.

But you figured this other part was on the way, right? The part where Kansas finds its sea legs, stands back up and starts throwing punches instead of dodging them.

A three-pointer by Elijah Johnson here. An empty possession by Kentucky there. A runner by Taylor, a layup by Robinson, and KU had a few chances to pull within a possession in the final few minutes.

But that’s when Taylor got blocked on a layup — he’ll watch the video to see whether he should’ve gone up on the same side of the rim — and Davis forced Johnson into a turnover and soon enough Kentucky’s band of blue-chip recruits were hugging each other while the school band played club music.

There is sadness on Kansas’ side of this. Of course there is. Like the man said, you can’t care about something without being disappointed at a bad ending. Their rings will say Final Four instead of national champions, but they’ll still be shiny.

This is a different sort of disappointment for Kansas. There is pride beneath the letdown, smiles underneath the tears. That is easier to see now than in the immediate wake of the last two tournament losses.

That will become even easier to see in the coming days and weeks and years.