March Sadness-Kansas basketball falls short of Final Four…once again

Kansas Jayhawks march sadness

APRIL 2017 – Kansas and Oregon had been dreaming of this moment ever since their seasons ended last year in the Elite Eight. KU fell to eventual national champion Villanova, while the Ducks lost to Oklahoma.

But here they were again matched up in the Midwest Regional Final at Sprint Center in Kansas City, one win away from the Final Four. Both teams ached to get to Glendale, Arizona, and were seeking redemption for last season’s bitter Elite Eight defeats.

“We think about it all the time,” KU senior guard Frank Mason III said about last year’s loss to Villanova.

Kansas entered the Elite Eight as many observers’ favorites to win the national championship

They manhandled its first three opponents in the NCAA Tournament by averaging 96 points per game and winning by 30 points per game.

The No. 1 seed Jayhawks crushed Purdue in the Sweet 16, 98-66, and were flying high with confidence. No. 3 seed Oregon, meanwhile, had survived two nailbiters against Rhode Island and Michigan, and was a seven-point underdog to KU, which had a huge advantage playing in front of its rabid fans at Sprint Center, aka Allen Fieldhouse East.

The Jayhawk faithful were expecting a huge party in the Power & Light District in Kansas City and in Lawrence on Massachusetts Street after a huge win and first Final Four appearance by KU in five years.

But when the final buzzer sounded on March 25, it was heartbreak for Jayhawk Nation. Oregon had shocked Kansas 74-60, leaving the KU fans and players in disbelief.

The Ducks’ players jumped up and down. They danced. They hugged each other. They embraced their coach Dana Altman. Dylan Ennis screamed in jubilation into the TV camera and slapped hands with fans at courtside.

Oregon donned their regional championship hats and green “Cut the Net” shirts, while presented with their Midwest Regional title trophy. Soon, one by one, the players climbed the ladder and cut down the net.

Altman, the former Kansas State coach, was the last one to cut the twine and flashed a broad smile and waved the net to the crowd.

It had been 78 years since Oregon (33-5, most wins in school history) had reached the Final Four in 1939, and it was time to exhale and celebrate for the players, fans, coaches and alumni.

For Kansas fans, the team and coaches, it was great sadness and time to contemplate what could have been on a night where very little went right.

The Jayhawks (31-5) walked with their heads bowed to the locker room while senior center Landen Lucas had a towel covering his face. Lucas, Mason and coach Bill Self answered questions in the press conference, while the rest of the Jayhawks sat somberly in the locker room.

“Well, they all stick with me and they’ll stick with the players that have been a part of it,” Self said. “I’m disappointed more for them than I am for me. These guys put us in a situation to play for the highest stakes, and today we just came up short. Sure it’s going to stick with us. But the one thing that did happen today, it’s hard to admit, the best team did win today. Today, I don’t think we every really gave our — put our best foot forward like we have very consistently all season long.”

KU seemed to play “sped up” and “tight,” shooting 35 percent from the field and 20 percent from three-point range (5-25), including a dismal 1 of 15 the second half.

Oregon’s matchup zone gave KU fits while the Ducks got more loose balls and outrebounded KU 36-32. Kansas’ defense was subpar the first half as Oregon shot 60 percent from the field (50.9 percent for the game) and 58.3 percent from beyond the arc (44 percent for game). Tyler Dorsey (“Mr. March”) scored a game-high 27 points, while Jordan Bell was dominant with 11 points, 13 rebounds and a whopping eight blocks.

“The guy that changed the game more than anybody was Jordan Bell,” Self said of the Pac-12 Player of the Year.

Mason led KU with 21 points, but only four in the final half. He kept Kansas in the game in the first half, including one stretch where he scored 15 consecutive points. Freshman Josh Jackson, who surely played his last college game, had 10 points and 12 rebounds, but was held scoreless the first 20 minutes after going to the bench at the 17:23 mark with two fouls, which changed the complexion of the game.

But maybe the biggest individual stat was junior guard Devonte’ Graham being held to three points and shooting 0 of 7 from the field and missing all six pointers, a game after entering the Elite Eight averaging 20 points in the NCAA Tournament and scoring 26 points against Purdue.

Cold shooting and forced shots doomed the Jayhawks.

“The ball has gone in for us the entire tournament and tonight it didn’t,” Self said. “I can’t believe how hard our guys tried. We just couldn’t really get out of our own way today very well.”

KU trailed 44-33 at halftime, and rallied from a 55-37 deficit to cut the lead to 66-60 with 2:49 remaining. But on the next possession, KU failed to secure a critical defensive rebound and Dorsey wound up nailing a three-point dagger, which took the life out of the Jayhawks and their fans and essentially ended KU’s Final Four dreams.

A trip to Glendale seemed KU’s destiny all season with this being one of Self’s most talented and offensive teams. The Jayhawks opened the season with a 103-99 overtime loss to Indiana in Honolulu, followed by a thrilling 77-75 win over then-No. 1 Duke in the Champions Classic in New York. Kansas won 18 straight games before losing at West Virginia. KU closed the regular season by winning 10 of its next 11 games, capturing an NCAA record-tying 13th straight conference championship and climbing to No. 1 in the polls.

While Kansas was having a memorable season, it wasn’t all rosy headlines. The Jayhawks were plagued with a variety of off-court incidents, including Jackson being charged with misdemeanor property damage for allegedly kicking the car of a Kansas women’s basketball player. Jackson was also suspended for KU’s Big 12 Tournament opening-round game against TCU (KU lost, 85-82) after leaving the scene without leaving notification after backing into a parked car on campus and not initially telling Self about the incident.

Self said Jackson had to be suspended considering his previous legal issue. “Our guys have rallied around this. Our guys have rallied around Josh,” Self said before opening the NCAA Tournament against UC Davis “… Sometimes families you go through stuff and you just gotta put blinders on and go at the job at hand, and I think they’ve kind of found their basketball court as their safe haven.”

Losing to TCU might have been a blessing in disguise for KU entering the Big Dance. The defeat allowed the Jayhawks to get some much-needed rest, refocus in practice and get sharper on defense.

“We have made each practice feel like it’s a championship game,” sophomore guard Lagerald Vick.

Indeed, KU entered its record 28th straight NCAA Tournament on a mission, playing free, easy and determined, destroying Cal-Davis in the first round, 100-66, and then breaking open a 54-53 lead in the second-round game against Michigan State and winning, 90-70. Jackson, who chose KU over MSU, starred with 23 points against the Spartans while Lucas posted a double-double — 10 points, 11 rebounds — and reserve big man Dwight Coleby provided Kansas an unexpected boost with three points and four rebounds in nine minutes.

“He gave us the spark we needed,” Mason said. “Landen got in foul trouble, and he came in prepared and ready to play.”

Graham said, “Dwight was … really the MVP of the second half for us.’’

Then Kansas headed 45 miles from its campus to Kansas City for the Sweet 16 against No. 4 seed and Big Ten champion Purdue, where KU’s 44-37 halftime lead turned into a second half blowout as the Jayhawks flew in transition and resembled an offensive machine while playing great defense. Mason and Graham each scored 26 points, while Kansas became just the sixth team to win its first three games in the NCAA Tournament by 20 points or more. KU also was the first squad since UConn to score 90-plus points in each off its first three games of the tournament.

“I thought it was one of the best games we played all year,” Self said. “I thought Purdue was great early, obviously, and had us on our heels and we knocked down some shots to get us the lead at halftime. But the second half I thought we were great on both ends, shot the ball extremely well, but our activity defensively was what spurred us. The second half was about as complete as we’ve played.”

Purdue coach Matt Painter was impressed.

“You cannot let them get in transition,” Painter said. “They’re going to keep getting those opportunities and shoot the way those guards shot then they can’t be stopped.”

Oregon did stop the Jayhawks and ended their magical season. The loss dropped Self to 2-7 in Elite Eight games and marked the seventh time he’s lost as a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance.

“I think it’s the hardest game in the tournament,” Self said.

After all their close games, after all their comebacks, after all their grit and resiliency, the 2016-17 season was over and so were the careers of Mason (KU’s No. 6 all-time leading scorer with 1,885 points and No. 6 with 576 assists) and Lucas, as well as walk-on Tyler Self.

“As soon as I got here, they always had my back,” Jackson said.

After Self finished his postgame press conference, he spoke to a group of reporters outside the team’s locker room and reflected on the season.

“To be 31-5 is great. We fell short of our ultimate goal and so much is put on the tournament, and rightfully so,” Self said. “But the guys shouldn’t hang their heads. I told them they’ve been great ambassadors for our school and each other and our program. Playing poorly or we did not prepare them right or not playing our best game for whatever reason shouldn’t take away from the fact that we had a great year.

“In order to have special years, you got to play well in the NCAA Tournament and we performed this year about as well as we ever have in three games. But the Final Four would have made it special, and we obviously fell short.”

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Article by David Garfield

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