Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger: Playing ‘home’ game, Jayhawks, coach Bill Self come up short again

KU coach Bill Self on Elite Eight loss to Oregon: 'They were better than us'

No. 3 seed Oregon defeated top-seeded Kansas 74-60 in the NCAA Midwest Regional final on Saturday, March 25, 2017, at Sprint Center in Kansas City.
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No. 3 seed Oregon defeated top-seeded Kansas 74-60 in the NCAA Midwest Regional final on Saturday, March 25, 2017, at Sprint Center in Kansas City.

Bill Self is standing against a brick wall in a quiet hallway surrounded by a few dozen cameras and notebooks explaining a terrible NCAA Tournament loss, and how many different times could these words have been said?

The Kansas basketball coach has built an empire, but he is also building quite the list of losses that make fans want to punch a tree.

This is what he is, and what his program has become.

Another season that Self will claim as great (conference championship, 31 wins) but not special (no Final Four). Kansas fans have heard some version of that in 11 of the last 13 seasons — all conference champions, an average NCAA Tournament seeding of 1.8 and just two Final Fours.

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One side does not come with the other, and so it is that Kansas lost another Elite Eight game, this time 74-60 to Oregon at Sprint Center on Saturday, with details that Self will be cursing most of the next few months.

“I kept saying, ‘Hey, somebody’s going to make a shot, the lid’s coming off, we’ll be fine,’” Self said. “We never did.”

If this is not the worst tournament loss of Self’s career, that’s only because he’s had too many of them already. The loss to VCU in 2011 — when the bracket opened up for the Jayhawks, and they missed 19 of 21 three-pointers, and Markieff Morris turned it over eight times — may never be topped.

Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self answered questions about Saturday's 74-60 loss in the Elite Eight to the Oregon Ducks at Sprint Center that ended the Jayhawks' season.

But the details on this one are hard to digest. Josh Jackson, who will probably be a top five pick in the NBA Draft, no-showed most of the night.

Devonte Graham, the junior guard who has always been at his best in the biggest moments, no-showed the entire night.

Landen Lucas, the senior center whose impact has almost always been under appreciated, was thoroughly dominated.

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That left senior guard Frank Mason, the national player of the year, carrying one of college basketball’s best teams for far too long, leaving himself exhausted.

The worst part of this particular loss is that it happened on what was effectively a home court — there may have been more KU fans among the announced crowd of 18,643 than a sold-out Allen Fieldhouse — and that Oregon spent most of the second half with a strategy perhaps best described as please-no-please-no-please-no.

This group spent an entire season proving over and over again that it was not the kind of team that would lose a game like this. They had risen to every big moment, completed absurd comeback after absurd comeback, and if nothing else had shown themselves to be resilient, gutsy and brutally difficult to put away.

In their last game together, Jackson was admittedly out of it mentally for most of the night, Graham missed all seven of his shots, and KU could not take advantage when Oregon went into a prevent offense for the last 15 minutes.

“You hope you’re not remembered for that,” Lucas said.

KU senior Landen Lucas was disappointed in himself after only getting three rebounds in 33 minutes in the Jayhawks' season-ending 74-60 loss to Oregon in the Elite Eight at the Sprint Center.

They will be, of course. This is how it works — no matter how cruel, no matter how unfair.

Self is now 2-5 (28.6 percent) in Elite Eight games at Kansas, and 414-83 (83.3 percent) in all other games.

That means a virtual who’s-who of 21st century KU stars can tell stories of unexpected losses one win from the Final Four — Wayne Simien’s class against Georgia Tech in 2004, the year before the championship in 2007, the Morris twins against VCU in 2011, Perry Ellis against Villanova in 2016, and now this group in 2017.

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This team had proven itself better than this so many times before: at the buzzer against Duke, and the last two minutes and overtime at home against West Virginia, and the first three overwhelming performances in this NCAA Tournament.

But that’s all a cruel prologue now. Oregon confused Kansas, eerily similar to how Villanova did a year ago, with a matchup zone and switches on defense that took away the Jayhawks’ aggressiveness.

Lucas said that at some point he started thinking about that, of how it all went so wrong a year ago, and maybe he started to try too hard.

Jackson talked about the team thinking too much on offense, instead of attacking.

Graham talked of the deflating feeling of watching so many bounces and loose balls go Oregon’s way.

That’s the nastiness of the NCAA Tournament. Fans will remember the good. They always do, and those conference championships matter.

But in moments like this, they don’t matter enough to knock away the heart-punching agony of another brutal ending.

Frank Mason reflected on his four years at Kansas after the Jayhawks' 74-60 loss to the Oregon Ducks on in the NCAA Midwest Regional Final on Saturday, March 25, 2017, at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger