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An improbable run by Kansas? That’s what this is

by - Published April 2, 2012 in Columns
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One team was supposed to be here, one team wasn’t. The latter could be said in more ways than one. But as Monday night’s national championship game beckons, Kentucky and Kansas are something of a study in contrasts from the standpoint of how they got to this point. While there will surely be a lot of talk of about recent history between these two teams and head coaches, a better subject is the contrast in the expectations many had of these teams, and how one of them has reached here in what was thought to be more of a rebuilding year than a contending one. In doing so, we find that Bill Self may have done his best coaching job yet.

“We have kind of flown under the radar, by Kansas standards of late, which I think has been very healthy for a team that’s just trying to find themselves,” said Self.

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Bracket Breakdown: Kansas’ Upset Follows Scary Trend for Jayhawk Fans

by - Published March 22, 2010 in Columns

Kansas was supposed to cruise to its second title in three years. On paper, the Jayhawks had everything a team was supposed to need to make a long, triumphant run to the final game in April.

A seasoned point guard with plenty of NCAA Tournament experience, including one national championship already? Check.

A tough-minded beast in the post with NBA-caliber talent? Check.

A few athletic swingmen who cause match up problems against smaller guards? Check.

A great statistical profile that included an offense and defense ranked in the top 10 in efficiency? Check.

A veteran coach who knows how to win big games? Um, we might need to leave that box blank.

Since coach Bill Self arrived in Lawrence in 2003, the Jayhawks have reached the NCAA Tournament every season. In 2008, Self guided Kansas to its first championship in 20 years by upsetting the top overall seed, North Carolina, and then beating Memphis in a thriller. The media eagerly added Self to the pantheon of the greatest coaches in the game today.

But perhaps we all embraced Self’s success a little too hastily.

Besides 2008, what has Kansas accomplished under Self? If Saturday’s loss to Northern Iowa stunned you, I recommend that you sit down for this one.

If you don’t count the championship season, Kansas has won exactly one NCAA Tournament game against a team seeded better than No. 8. One! That doesn’t seem possible, especially for a team that has been seeded No. 4 or better in every one of those NCAA Tournaments. For crying out loud, Cornell and St. Mary’s have topped that total this season alone!

Let’s run down the recent NCAA Tournament history of the Self-made Kansas Jayhawks.

  • 2004: In Self’s first season with the Jayhawks, the team earned a No. 4 seed and beat No. 13 Illinois-Chicago, No. 12 Pacific and No. 8 UAB before losing to No. 3 Georgia Tech in the Elite Eight.
  • 2005: With high expectations as a No. 3 seed, Kansas flamed out in the first round against No. 14 Bucknell.
  • 2006: Kansas fared no better the next season as a No. 4 seed, losing to No. 13 Bradley in the first round.
  • 2007: As a No. 1 seed, Kansas made its second-deepest run under Self, beating No. 16 Portland State, No. 8 Kentucky and No. 4 Southern Illinois before losing to No. 2 UCLA.
  • 2008: The Jayhawks earned a No. 1 seed and won the national championship by taking out No. 16 Niagara, No. 8 UNLV, No. 12 Villanova, No. 10 Davidson, No. 1 North Carolina and No. 1 Memphis.
  • 2009: After winning the championship, the reloaded Jayhawks got a No. 3 seed and beat No. 14 North Dakota State and No. 11 Dayton before losing to No. 2 Michigan State.
  • 2010: Expected to win their second national championship in three seasons, the Jayhawks became the first No. 1 seed to lose in this year’s tournament when No. 9 Northern Iowa knocked them off.

In three of seven tournaments, Kansas has been victimized by teams seeded eight, nine and 11 seeds worse than the Jayhawks’. Those all count as major upsets. In 2004 and 2009, the Jayhawks were the beneficiaries of other upsets and beat three teams seeded No. 8 or worse in the second round and Sweet 16 before eventually losing to the first better seed they played.

In 2007, Kansas made its best run outside the championship season as the Jayhawks beat the hardest possible team, based on seed, in each round before losing to UCLA, and there’s no shame in losing to a No. 2 seed in the Elite Eight.

But even Kansas’ run to the national championship in 2008 is littered with lucky breaks. The Jayhawks drew overmatched No. 12 Villanova in the Sweet 16 and exhausted No. 10 Davidson in the Elite Eight. If Stephen Curry hadn’t simply run out of steam with five minutes to go, the Wildcats might have pulled off yet another major upset of Self’s Jayhawks.

In the 2008 Final Four, Kansas played the single best NCAA Tournament game of the Bill Self era when the Jayhawks crushed North Carolina with a huge first half. The Jayhawks used a 31-6 to squash North Carolina’s hopes by midway through the first half. However, even with a 28-point lead, Kansas tried to give away the game as the Tar Heels rallied to cut that huge deficit to four points. They ran out of gas — a la Curry in the Elite Eight — and Kansas held on for an 84-66 victory.

In the championship game, Kansas was the team delivering an epic rally. When Memphis’ Robert Dozier hit two free throws with just more than two minutes remaining, the Tigers has a nine-point cushion and appeared set to win the championship. But Memphis missed 4-of-5 free throws in the final 75 seconds — perhaps bad karma derived from Derrick Rose’s academic machinations in high school — setting the stage for Mario Chalmers’ miraculous game-tying three-pointer in the waning seconds. Kansas carried the momentum through overtime and surged to a 75-68 championship game victory.

There’s no doubt that Self is a good coach. He is an excellent recruiter, and his teams statistically play great defense and efficient offense. However, his NCAA Tournament résumé is far from proven, and it’s way too early to label him a great coach as long as the Jayhawks have twice as many NCAA Tournament losses (six) than wins against teams seeded better than No. 8 (three).

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The Master’s School has a number of good students, and they will continue to head to college later. This time around, they also have some talent on the hardwood and should win a few more games.

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