Sam Mellinger

Kansas is back where dreams have so often died: 'I think about it all the time'

This is the best version of Kansas, or at the very least the best version that could be reasonably expected, and good thing too because here comes the place we've often seen the Jayhawks' worst.

The Elite Eight.

Is that fair? Maybe not. Disappointing might be the better word, because this is the place more often than not where the Jayhawks' dreams have come to die.

Oregon last year. Villanova the year before that.

"I think about it all the time," senior guard Devonte Graham said.

VCU in in 2011. UCLA in 2007. Georgia Tech in 2004. And that's only the games Bill Self has coached at Kansas.

"Devonte's not won the last two, but there's seven that I haven't won when I've been the head coach," Self said. "Certainly it's etched in the back of my brain, and I'd like nothing more than to take my team this year to San Antonio and let them experience what the best of the best is in college basketball."

This is how Kansas enters what now feels like an annual audition for the NCAA Tournament's biggest stage, with a 80-76 win over Clemson on Friday that was closer than it should've been.

We can nitpick here. Goodness knows, we can always nitpick. Devonte Graham's shooting slump continues (he's now 30 for 89 in March). KU gave up far too many offensive rebounds to a team that doesn't prioritize them and had trouble finishing. Some dumb mistakes and lucky breaks weren't entirely unlike the end of the Seton Hall game.

That last part might be most concerning. Self has never agreed with this, at least publicly, but he and his teams have appeared tight and unsure in this round more often than any other moment.

His Kansas teams have always been defined by toughness, their greatest successes often won at the margins with improbable comebacks — every KU fan knows what down nine with 2:12 left means — but this round has been their quicksand.

Self is 8-2 at Kansas in the Sweet 16, 3-1 in the Final Four ... and 2-5 in the Elite Eight. He's good before and after, but rotten in the middle.

These are relatively small sample sizes, sure, but the numbers are stacking. Self has won 82 percent of his games at Kansas but just 29 percent in this round. There is no other setting, no other moment, that has given him such trouble.

Consider this: He's 10-2 at Kansas against top 10 teams on the road. Those are the hardest games college basketball offers — the best opponents, in the loudest and most hostile environments. And Self has an 83 percent success rate.

He is 32-5 against top 10 opponents in any setting other than the Elite Eight. He is 1-3 against them in the Elite Eight.

The last was a loss to Oregon last year. Josh Jackson got in early foul trouble, nobody except Frank Mason made shots, and Oregon's Jordan Bell dominated the rim on both ends. That wasn't supposed to happen. That was a virtual home game, at Sprint Center, and KU was playing as well as it had in years.

"We played almost three perfect games going into that game and pretty much laid an egg against Oregon," Self said. "But I'm so proud of our team because I think of all the teams that we've had here, this would be the team that everyone would have thought would not be in this game. And so, hey, we're in this game. We've got a legitimate shot to go to San Antonio."

It's an interesting point. The other day, sophomore Mitch Lightfoot called this "a prove-people-wrong team." The idea of Kansas basketball players doing the nobody-believed-in-us thing is at least a little funny, because if a down year is 30 wins and a sweep of the regular season and conference tournament, then we need to retire the phrase "KU down year" forever.

But, well, maybe there's something to this. In the last six seasons, Kansas has been a betting underdog 23 times. They have won 14, meaning if you did nothing other than bet Kansas to win in the relatively rare instances they were expected to lose, well, you would have a very nice return on your investment.

This is not a front-running program, in other words. Self's culture has been about resilience, about taking the other side's best shot and still celebrating in the locker room after. He's been remarkably successful at it, in quite literally every situation except the one he now finds himself.

"It would be nice to make (this season) special-special," Self said. "In order to do that, at Kansas, you have to go to the Final Four. I've always believed that."

Self's teams have generally been favored in these games, with the most on the line. Kansas will be an underdog against Duke. Self has been a good bet in this spot before, and this particular team has never seen itself as a favorite, as ridiculous as that notion may seem at Kansas. Maybe these Jayhawks can play loose; maybe they can play free.

Maybe they can do what so many of their more talented predecessors have not.

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