Season of promise fizzles out for Jayhawks
Standing outside the locker room, Cole Aldrich hugged anyone he could find, trying to console his dejected teammates.
Maybe he was doing it for himself, too.
The return-for-another-title pact he had made with Sherron Collins fell short.
The two unlikely buddies who bypassed the NBA for another shot at glory saw their season come to an inglorious end.
The epitaph: Northern Iowa 69, Kansas 67.
This wasn't the way Collins and Aldrich expected it to end.
``Next to my son dying, it's probably the worst thing to happen to me in my life,'' said Collins, his voice quivering as he sniffled back tears.
This was one of the most anticipated seasons ever in Lawrence.
Kansas had preseason All-Americans Collins and Aldrich back, a group of sophomores from one of coach Bill Self's best recruiting classes ever and another, better group of freshmen this year.
The Jayhawks were bigger, better, faster and deeper than everyone else, essentially an NBA development team.
The first sign of trouble came in the summer.
That's when members of the team got into several fights with the football team, leaving the university embarrassed and point guard Tyshawn Taylor with an injured hand. Two weeks later, junior guard Brady Morningstar was arrested on suspicion of DUI, earning him a first-semester suspension from the team.
Questions of immaturity were quickly quashed when Kansas lived up to its preseason No. 1 ranking and won its first 14 games. The Jayhawks suffered a surprising setback to short-handed Tennessee, but lost just once the rest of the season on the way to a sixth-straight Big 12 regular-season title and their seventh conference tournament championship.
The winning wasn't always easy, though.
Kansas had an on-the-edge habit of playing down to the level of its opponents or against the score, allowing lesser teams to stay close, good teams to rally after being down.
The Jayhawks lacked the killer instinct of the 2008 national championship team, too often playing in spurts instead of stomping the will out of opponents. Kansas got away with it most of the time, relying on a big run of hot shooting or claustrophobic defense to turn tight games into routs.
It worked in the NCAA's first round. Kansas fell behind Lehigh early to give the mid-major hope, went on a run and won by a looks-good-in-the-boxscore 16 points.
The run of runs came to an end in Saturday's second-round game against Northern Iowa.
Kansas fell behind 10-2 and never fully caught up, leaving Ali Farokhmanesh open for a momentum-breaking 3-pointer and failing to convert offensively after that to lose 69-67.
For all the hype, the predictions of a second title in three years - one by the president, no less - the Jayhawks were sent home by another mid-major, like in Bradley in 2006 and Bucknell the year before in Oklahoma City.
When it was over, tears flowed as players kneeled face down on the floor as Northern Iowa celebrated at the other end.
The weight of expectations made it hurt even more.
``We had a good season,'' guard Tyrel Reed said. ``It just didn't end the way we wanted it to.''
The disappointing loss ends one of the greatest careers in KU's renowned history.
Collins didn't finish the Jayhawks' career leader in points, assists, even steals. What he did was win more games than anyone in Kansas history, more than Wilt Chamberlain, Danny Manning and Kirk Hinrich.
A shy kid from inner-city Chicago when he arrived, Collins became the face of a program, the man who took the blame when his team lost, deflected credit even when he was the reason it won.
Collins' final line: 10 points on 4 of 15 shooting, four assist, three rebounds, five turnovers. This was not the way anyone wanted to see him go out, but he'll still have a place in the rafters with Wilt and everyone else, his name among the greatest players in KU history.
``It's disappointing that we couldn't have let Sherron go out in a better way,'' Aldrich said.
He likely won't be the only one leaving.
Aldrich almost left after last season, sticking around only after Collins agreed to. A likely lottery pick in the NBA draft, he cried along with Collins during senior night at Allen Fieldhouse as if it were his last night, too.
Marcus Morris boosted his draft status with an exponentially improved sophomore season, but isn't likely to bolt without twin brother Markieff. Taylor could go, too, though scouts have questions about his maturity.
Xavier Henry seems to be ready to go. The freshman phenom only went to KU because of NBA eligibility rules and could become the Jayhawks' first one-and-done player.
Whatever happens, Kansas will likely rebuild, as it always does, and use the disappointment of this weekend as motivation.
``It's something that will always stick in your head when you're supposed to win the whole thing and you only make it to the second round and lose,'' Henry said. ``If I'm back next year. ... I can make sure we do what we're supposed to do, not come out here, mess around and get beat.''