Sam Mellinger

Different means, same end: Another KU team will watch the Final Four at home

Wayne Selden on missed threes, Landen Lucas praises defense

KU stayed close to Villanova with defense but outside of Devonte' Graham was 1 of 13 from three-point range.
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KU stayed close to Villanova with defense but outside of Devonte' Graham was 1 of 13 from three-point range.

The end always happens too soon, before you expect it. One moment you imagine how your team is going to win again, because that’s all it has done for two months. The next moment, your point guard is diving after a ball he lost in the final seconds, and you’re watching the other side start a party you thought would be yours.

Another missed chance. Another locker room full of tears.

So many of the things this team had done so well for so long — Perry Ellis scoring, ruthless ball movement, rising to the toughest moments in the final minutes — never happened. There is no good way to lose an NCAA Tournament game, particularly as the top overall seed and with the pressures that come along with being Kansas, but this one will leave KU’s players and coaches and fans with an empty feeling.

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All year, Kansas was at its best in the moments that mattered the most. On this night, the highlights will show Villanova playing faster, freer and smarter.

The group that had been college basketball’s best team will watch the Final Four at home and must now take inventory of what went wrong in a 64-59 loss to Villanova in the South Region final here on Saturday.

“These kids are tough,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “We may not play well, but nobody can say they’re not tough.”

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This was a fantastic season in most ways for Kansas. It won the best Big 12 ever by two games, plus the conference tournament. It went 33-5, and there is no shame in losing to Villanova, particularly in the Elite Eight. But being at Kansas means any season that ends in a loss is a disappointment, especially a loss before the Final Four.

Every disappointment needs somewhere for the blame to go, so there will be talk of Ellis playing his worst game of the season in his last game at Kansas, and questions about why the Jayhawks played so tight for so long, or about some questionable calls by the officials. At the final buzzer, Kansas assistant Kurtis Townsend screamed at a referee, appearing to say, “You were awful tonight!”

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Bill Self has now won just two of eight regional finals, the game he calls the toughest of the tournament — the difference between a good season, and a special one.

This is a different kind of loss. Three years ago, it was Elijah Johnson’s meltdown against Michigan. Two years ago, it was Andrew Wiggins scoring just four points against Stanford. Last year, it was a roster-wide backdown against Wichita State.

This time, KU just got beat. Some of it they did to themselves with decisions that were too slow, and adjustments that were too late. But Villanova earned this, too.

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“It hurts because I’m proud of our seniors and whatnot,” Lucas said. “But it’s a different feeling than the last couple years.”

This particular group of Jayhawks did not have the depth of talent of the 2008 team, or the star power of the 2012 team, but they pushed themselves to the doorstep of the Final Four because they were relentlessly effective. They were made up of complementary parts, each man knowing exactly what was needed in both the big picture and the moment.

This was not the prototype of a powerhouse, however. Bill Self talked often of how the makeup of his roster left a smaller margin for error than some of his best teams, and it had been so long since they’d lost — 61 days, actually — that it was easy to forget what he meant.

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“Coaches probably know better than anybody what teams’ ceilings are, and these kids played pretty close to it the last couple of months,” Self said. “I don’t know if this particular group could have a special year without getting to (the Final Four), but nobody can say these kids didn’t have a great year.

“They battled hard and almost always rose to the occasion when they needed to. Tonight, we played a team that was scrappy also, and they made a couple more plays.”

KU’s flaws showed up on this night. Villanova swarmed Ellis, and for too long the Jayhawks struggled to find points from the others on the floor. Ellis has tended to struggle against physical defense, and against Villanova he never showed the aggression that had become typical for him as a senior.

The Star's Sam Mellinger, Blair Kerkhoff, Jesse Newell and Vahe Gregorian discuss the Kansas Jayhawks' 64-59 loss to the Villanova Wildcats in the NCAA South Regional final Saturday night in Louisville, Ky.

In some ways, this had been about Ellis making his case as one of the program’s all-time greats. If he led KU to the Final Four — one more win — it is likely his jersey would’ve hung from the rafters at Allen Fieldhouse someday.

But it wasn’t just Ellis. The Jayhawks committed 16 turnovers — including seven in a stretch of eight possessions of the first half — many on slow decisions, bizarre lapses or in the face of Villanova pressure.

“All we needed to do was play good,” Lucas said. “And we didn’t.”

In so many ways, this was a departure from how KU had played for two months. The Jayhawks did not pass well, they did not drive effectively enough and they missed open looks on three-pointers.

At one point during a stoppage, Wayne Selden jumped to wave his hand above the rim, presumably to knock the lid off. It didn’t help. He missed all six of his three-pointers. As a team, KU missed 16 of 22. All year, Kansas shredded zone defenses. On this night, the zone shredded Kansas.

All Tournament losses are missed opportunities, and this one will be remembered the same way. Kansas would’ve played Oklahoma in the national semifinals, a tough opponent but one it had beaten twice this season. The best and worst part of the NCAA Tournament is that all of that can be wiped away in 40 minutes.

This is Kansas, so another good team will be back next year. Depending on a few decisions — one by the nation’s top recruit, and others by players like Selden on the NBA — the Jayhawks should be even better next season.

This was a high-level basketball game, worthy of a Final Four or even a national championship. The arena was intense, fans on all sides of the lower bowl standing for most of the second half. In the end, the Jayhawks’ season ended against a team built much themselves — experienced, tough and smart.

That could have been Kansas. And for so long, it looked like it was going to be Kansas. Instead, another March disappointment. The Jayhawks will watch next weekend’s games and feel like they are good enough to beat any of the teams playing.

They’ll be right, which is probably what hurts the most. Another Kansas team among the best in the country, watching college basketball’s biggest games from home.

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