In a strange way, something was missing from this Kansas team
The Jayhawks seemingly had it all, but coach Bill Self never felt comfortable
When KU played well it was the best team in land, but it lacked a killer instinct
It all came crashing down on Saturday when Northern Iowa shocked Jayhawks
This is not meant to say that I knew. I didn't know. I very much didn't know. Shoot, I picked Kansas to win the national championship. I believed that these Jayhawks were the most complete team coming into this odd NCAA tournament without so many of the familiar faces and coaches. No, I did not know.
But, looking back, maybe I should have known.
Maybe I should have known because when I followed the Jayhawks, I could not help but get this weird vibe coming from coach Bill Self. At the time, the Jayhawks had already clinched the Big 12 title. They had proven to be a tough team that won in tough places. They were ranked No. 1 in America, and they were already the clear-cut favorite for the tournament. And, still, Self clearly did not seem to know what kind of team he had.
"Oh, we're good," he said, which seemed an odd thing to say. Good? Well, sure they were good. Everyone knew they were good. They were ranked No. 1 in the country. And yet, he said it more than once and earnestly -- "Oh, we're a good basketball team" -- and I remember even then thinking about the line in Casablanca: "You know how you sound, Monsieur Self? Like a man who's trying to convince himself of something he doesn't believe in his heart."
Of course Kansas is a good team -- a second-round loss doesn't change that. They won the Big 12 regular season, they won the Big 12 tournament, they beat a fabulous Kansas State team three times, they won 33 games. They're good. But the goal, of course, was something bigger than good. The expectation was something grander than good.
The thing that seemed to bother Self most was that this team did not have the ability to make it all look effortless. Self used different terms for it -- at times he talked about how his team didn't have enough of a killer instinct, and at times he talked about how his team didn't handle success well, and at times he talked about how his players seemed to sink or rise to the level of competition.
But, however he said things, it all seemed to come down to effortlessness. It's an airy concept. It's like the Jayhawks were not equipped with cruise control. It's like the Jayhawks could play all the notes but could not quite turn it into music. They just rarely seemed to enter that zone where the baskets came easy, one after another, and the defense proved suffocating, possession after possession, and Self could just sit back in his chair and enjoy the show. I would say Self called more early timeouts this year than he had in his entire Kansas coaching life, and you can probably throw in the Illinois and Tulsa years, too.
"Our championship team, they could make it look so easy," Self told me, and it was true. That Kansas team could attack any kind of defense, and get open shot after open shot. That team could play such ferocious defense that teams would come into game nervous, like a boxer whose only plan is to cover up.
This team -- well it just looked harder. Make no mistake, this team was in many ways BETTER during the season than that championship team. That championship team lost at Texas. That team was beat pretty soundly at Kansas State. That team never looked quite as good away from the comfort of home. That championship team seemed to feed off emotion -- they NEEDED emotion. This Jayhawks team did not seem as needy. They won at Texas and Kansas State, and also at Texas A&M and Temple. They played about the same everywhere. They looked at their best when challenged.
Still, Self seemed baffled by them. Yes, they won. Yes, they played at their best in big moments. Yes, those three games against Kansas State were each Thrillas at Manilla, and the Jayhawks won them all, and that had to mean SOMETHING, right? That had to say something about the fiber of this team. Still, the question gnawed: Why didn't they make it look easy? How can a team with an All-America senior point guard, a dominant two-way center who was named Academic All-America of the year, a shooting guard who probably would have been a Top 10 NBA pick, twin forwards who are relentless on the glass and an assortment of brilliant shooters and gifted role players -- how can that team not play sublime basketball? How can that team not squash lesser opponents?
He pawed at the question. There were no easy answers. There were no apparent answers. Self did not think the problem was effort -- the Jayhawks generally played hard. He did not think the problem was overconfidence -- the players seemed to understand what level they needed to win. He did not think the problem was chemistry -- the guys really cared about each other on and off the court.
No, he could not put his hand on the problem. Truth is, he wasn't even sure it WAS a problem. The Jayhawks kept on winning. They entered the tournament the No. 1 overall seed. I have little doubt that Self told himself, more than once, "Well, maybe I'm just imagining it."
Now we know ... he wasn't imagining it. There was something missing from this Jayhawks team. They looked terrible in their opening-round game against Lehigh -- they led by only six in the second half and for too much of the game you could look at the two teams and not know which one was the No. 1 seed. Self was furious all game long. He called timeouts. He hitched up his pants. His face went vermillion to venetian to fire engine to burgundy to maroon. Nothing changed no matter how much he yelled. Even when the Jayhawks went on their decisive 15-0 run, they didn't look especially good doing it. They won, and won decisively, because they had a more talent. But that was it.
Then came Saturday's shocker, the Northern Iowa game. Only, there was something strikingly non-shocking about it. The Jayhawks played almost exactly the way they played against Lehigh. Their offense was sloppy, their defense uneven. Northern Iowa was simply the better team, all game long. Kansas' All-America guard, Sherron Collins, missed all six of his three-point shots and turned the ball over five times. The All-America center, Cole Aldrich, before he turned an ankle, was often outplayed by Jordan Eglseder (who made two three-pointers, after making only one all season). Those relentless twins --Marcus and Markieff Morris -- grabbed just three defensive rebounds all game long while Northern Iowa scored 18 second-chance points. The NBA shooting guard, Xavier Henry, looked tentative, like a freshman, and took only six shots and did not have an assist.
The Northern Iowa players seemed quite certain, right from the opening tip, that they were every bit as good as Kansas. That is a credit to their coach, Ben Jacobson, and to their gutty guard Ali Farokhmanesh and the whole group. But it also says something about Kansas. This Jayhawks team did not intimidate. These Jayhawks did not give the impression that they were going to blow you out of the building. Northern Iowa made some three-pointers in the first half and forced turnovers and beat Kansas to the ball and took a nice lead, and held that nice lead. And even though you figured that Kansas would make a run -- too talented and successful not to make a run -- nothing about it felt inevitable.
Finally, when it was seemed too late, Kansas did make its run. The Jayhawks clamped on a full-court press -- a full-court press that changed the whole complexion of the game. Where was the full-court pressure earlier? Suddenly the Jayhawks DID look scary. Suddenly, Northern Iowa DID look scared. A steal. A basket. Another steal. A foul. You had to wonder why the Jayhawks were not able to turn up this sort of ferocious heat earlier.
Henry missed the front end of one-and-one that could have cut the margin to one, the closest the game had been all night long. For Kansas, that miss had to feel like an anvil on the head. Northern Iowa built its lead back up to seven -- with 1:24 left. Then Kansas roared back once more. Free throws. A Northern Iowa turnover. Free throws. Another turnover. Collins drove for a basket in the lane -- finally cutting the margin to one. There were 43 seconds left. Self called timeout. The Jayhawks were alive, active, all they needed to do was turn on that intense pressure and then, if it came down to it, foul. The worst that could happen is they would be down three, a one-possession game.
No. That was not the worst. Northern Iowa's Farokhmanesh threw the dagger. He broke through the Kansas pressure was all alone on the right wing, just behind the three-point line, and -- what the heck -- he shot it with like 30 seconds remaining on the shot clock. The Jayhawks did not expect him to shoot that. But it was Farokhmanesh who understood -- that shot could kill the Jayhawks once and for all. He made it. Northern Iowa led by four. And Kansas was done.
This sort of thing happens in March. Not often a 9 seed beating a No. 1. But upsets happen. A better-than-its-seed team like Northern Iowa makes some outside shots, a favorite like Kansas misses them and begins to feel the pressure, and upsets happen. It's not the first time -- not even the first time it has happened to Kansas (I was there in Oklahoma City when Rhode Island beat No. 1 seed Kansas with Paul Pierce and Raef Lafrentz).
When Saturday's game ended, Self said he was proud of the way his team fought in the final minutes. He talked about missed shots. He talked about Farokhmanesh's great shot. He then said that the pain is in knowing that opportunities with a team this talented and determined don't come along very often. These Jayhawks were a very good team. They played hard. They played together. They won close games. They did some amazing things. But for some reason, some crazy reason, they never could quite turn the notes into music. Bill Self kept waiting for it to happen. He kept hoping it would happen. The loss happened first.
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