The high-flying Kansas Jayhawks look destined for the Final Four. Not so fast.
Kansas is unstoppable. Unbeatable. Dominant. Frank Mason is the best, and most important, player left in the NCAA tournament. Josh Jackson is a stellar freshman force who will be a top-three pick in the NBA draft, right after he’s done helping his team cruise to a national title. Bill Self is the most underrated coach in the country and will finally get the recognition he deserves with a second ring. KU became the first team in 22 years to score 90+ points in each of its first three NCAA tournament games and doesn’t appear to have any slowdowns in its future. In a Sweet 16 game that was thought to be a bad matchup given the interior dominance of Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan, all Kansas did was win by 32 points in a game that saw Self empty his bench with a few minutes on the clock. This is the team that’s going to bring Lawrence its fourth national title.
Or not. This is how Kansas rolls. Dominate the first three games, enter the second weekend as favorites and then – well, you know what happens.
Thursday’s 98-66 win gives Kansas its seventh Elite Eight appearance under Self. The school has lost four of those six games, three in which they were the better seed, including the 2011 embarrassment when the No. 1 Jayhawks lost by double-digits to 11th-seeded VCU. There was last year, when No. 1 Kansas fell to No. 2 Villanova. In 2007, KU, again a No. 1, fell to No. 2 UCLA. And then there was 2004, when Kansas was under-seeded at No. 4 and lost in overtime to No. 3 Georgia Tech.
The two Elite Eight wins for Self and Kansas: Beating No. 10 Davidson, a team led by some guy named Steph, en route to the national championship and then defeating former coach Roy Williams in 2012 before a finals loss to Kentucky. That’s 2-4 in Elite Eights and 6-2 in Sweet 16s. The regional final is KU’s Waterloo.
Two Final Fours in 13 years is a great achievement though, especially when your record in the national semifinal is 2-0. Right? Not when you’re Kansas, a team with an NCAA record 13-straight Big 12 Conference titles, the most consecutive tournament appearances at 29 and the most weeks in the AP top 25 (162 – no other team is in triple digits). That’s a consistency no one can match and it’s expected there will be the tournament results to match it. There needs to be something more and that’s why, despite one of the most dominant tournament starts in years, no one should trust the Jayhawks to beat Oregon. We’ve seen this movie before.
It’s not hard to picture: Mason starts cold and then plays like a chicken with its head cut off, trying to do too much to get Kansas back into the game. Jackson lays one of those “freshman studs in the tournament” eggs, going 2-9 from the floor, scoring seven points and generally being a non-factor in his farewell game that takes place just four months after his debut. Landen Lucas gets in foul trouble. No one can stop Oregon’s Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey. It’s the recurring nightmare of Kansas fans everywhere.
It’s fair to be wary about Kansas’ Elite Eight chances. They deserve the skepticism. While the days of first-round losses to Bucknell and Vermont are long gone, you can’t ignore that the Jayhawks have been ousted on the first weekend of the tournament in two of the last four years and, except for the national title game loss in 2012, have lost their last six tournament games to higher seeds, including Nos. 7, 9, 10 and 11. That doesn’t mean one must subscribe to the overplayed theory that Self is somehow a lesser coach because his teams have been on the short end of too many late-March games.
Duke has gone out on the first weekend in three of the last six tournaments including two opening-round upsets to teams seeded Nos. 14 and 15, respectively. North Carolina and Kentucky have played NITs this decade, missing the tournament completely! Over the past 14 years, KU has made three more Elite Eights than Duke, one more than UK (as of Thursday night) and the same as UNC. And while Carolina and Duke have two titles, with Kentucky tied with KU at one, none of those schools has any sort of bad March rep.
The Jayhawks are victims of their own success. Have an off year and make the NIT and it’s a blemish on a larger palette. But the consistency, with the Big 12 titles and the perennial top-10 rankings, may be putting too much on any team that’s playing a one-and-done tournament that’s more unpredictable than a roulette wheel. If KU mixed in those Final Four appearances with an Elite Eight loss or two and then a few more Sweet 16 defeats, that’d be better than having four losses on the cusp of the biggest stage in the sport. A loss in the regional finals endures. A Sweet 16 loss is just the breaks of the game. The Buffalo Bills are losers for being defeated in four straight Super Bowls, but do you realize how insane it is to make four straight anything? The teams are punished for having too much, but not quite enough, success.
The Midwest draw opened up for Kansas. The Jayhawks got the home cooking with a regional in Kansas City. They’ll be the heavy favorite against Oregon. It all seems predestined: Another Final Four, maybe another matchup with good ol’ Roy or big, bad Kentucky and then a national title game that’s either against Gonzaga or a team that snuck its way into the game. Finally, another title for the team has been one of the two or three favorites in half the tournaments dating back to 2009. But don’t pencil in Kansas for a berth in Phoenix quite yet. When it comes to winning the big, late games in the NCAA tournament, the Jayhawks neither rock nor chalk.
They seem to be due. Then again, they’ve been due before.