SAN ANTONIO — Unpalatable? Of course it was.
But was Saturday night’s 16-point blowout defeat to Villanova in the Final Four a “sour ending” to this Kansas basketball season? Asked a question that used that exact phrase in a postgame news conference, Jayhawk coach Bill Self took exception.
“I don’t know if I totally agree with that,” Self said. “To me, it would be a sour ending if you lost on the last possession. Do you feel better, you know, losing the way we did today or losing on the last possession?
“You always want to perform in a way to put yourself in position to win, but when it’s the last game, certainly it stings and hurts no matter what.”
Defined at first by the adversity and adjusted expectations that stemmed from a shorthanded roster, then by the resiliency and hopes of a national championship suddenly within striking distance, this KU season (31-8) ended swiftly in the 95-79 defeat to the Wildcats, a team Self previously called the best in the nation and Saturday displayed the best of the best. Nova hit a Final Four-record 18 3-pointers in the victory, including 13 in the game’s first 17 minutes, and advanced today’s 8:20 p.m. national championship tilt with Michigan.
“The way Villanova played, we would have had to play a perfect basketball game in order to put ourselves in a position to win,” Self said. “And obviously that didn’t occur.”
So how will this KU season be remembered?
On one hand, the Jayhawks’ roster construction wasn’t ideal. The team had one true ball handler, Devonte’ Graham, and one true five-man, 7-footer Udoka Azubuike. The difference in the Jayhawks’ performance when either went to the bench was drastic, particularly in the case of Graham, who averaged a Self era-high 37.8 minutes in his senior season.
Malik Newman came on strong late for KU but struggled as a ball handler, and no other guard developed into a viable option on that front. In the frontcourt, freshman forward Billy Preston entered as a prized five-star recruit but departed in late January without appearing in a single regular-season game, voluntarily withheld by the team and frustrated with a slow-moving NCAA review into the financial picture of a vehicle he was driving on campus at the time of a single-car accident Nov. 11, an incident self-reported and self-investigated by KU.
The team lost three games at Allen Fieldhouse for the first time under Self. The first, a 95-85 defeat to Arizona State on Dec. 10, led to the KU coach calling this group “the softest team that Kansas has had” in his 15-year tenure. The final home defeat, an 84-79 shocker to double-digit underdog Oklahoma State on Feb. 3, occurred on the day KU chose to celebrate the program’s 120-year anniversary and led to Self roasting his players at a banquet that evening, a closed-door meeting the next day and in a scorching media availability two days later.
How about the other side, though? What went right this season? Season-ending beat-down aside, there appears to be much more in that hand’s grasp.
The Jayhawks broke a tie with the John Wooden-led UCLA squads of the 1960s and ’70s with their 14th consecutive regular-season conference championship, a new national record. It happened in a year widely regarded as one of the best in terms of top-to-bottom strength in Big 12 history. A pair of frenzied comebacks against West Virginia set the pace, and a grind-it-out, Graham-fueled victory at Texas Tech clinched the historic league crown.
Preston’s exit opened a door for the team to discover a “diamond in the rough” in Silvio De Sousa, a five-star forward who reclassified to join the Jayhawks early and help the frontcourt situation. A touted prospect, De Sousa clearly had the physical tools to be a difference-maker, but he struggled to get up to speed as a late-December addition and appeared a lost cause for this season until Azubuike’s MCL sprain freed up playing time ahead of the Big 12 Tournament. There, De Sousa showed he belongs, posting 30 points and 29 rebounds in three games to lift the Jayhawks to the tourney title.
There’s more. Newman transformed into “Postseason Leek,” averaging 22.5 points over the team’s final eight games and finally realizing his full potential as an all-around option. Azubuike shot 77 percent on his 274 field-goal attempts, the former the highest mark in college basketball. Svi Mykhailiuk broke a single-season program record with 115 made 3s. And Graham, the do-it-all heart and soul of this group, was named Big 12 player of the year and an All-American by several outlets.
And after two years of heartbreak in the Elite Eight, the Jayhawks finally mastered that round, downing Duke in a thrilling 85-81 overtime victory in Omaha, Neb.
The good, it seems, outweighs the bad — sour ending or not.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” Self said. “We did not have the perfect roster in many ways to probably win 31 games and win the league in a great league and conference tournament and to get to the Final Four, in a lot of ways. And to be honest with you, it felt like (Saturday) it kind of just caught up with us. We had performed at a pretty high level and our margin for error is not as great as what it has been in some of our past years. The kids laid it out there, and it seemed to catch up to us today in large part because Villanova was so good.
“I’m not going to think sour about this at all. We’ve been in enough Elite Eight games and lost them, so getting here was obviously special.”