Bill Self’s Backup: From 14 to Sweet 16

I wrote an e-book called “14: A Look at the Kansas Jayhawks Historic Big 12 Streak.” This book looks back at the impressive 14-year streak, comparing how “easy” things seemed to be for the previous 13 teams and how hard the journey was for this year’s squad.

The end result was a 2017-18 team that grew up and kept improving, defying all expectations from the middle of the season. I ended the book at Senior Night, mainly so it could be a happy ending. End on a high note. But this team isn’t done yet. So think of this blog post as the expansion pack, the journey continuing into March.

By: Chris O’Brien

We’re spoiled. It’s as simple as that.

There is no reason we should have beaten Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament. They beat us twice during the regular season, destroyed us twice actually, and we only led for like thirty seconds in the combined 80 minutes.

Now enter the equation for the Big 12 tournament: Go play the same team who you lost to twice, but this time without Udoka.

And yet these guys figured it out, 82-64.

There’s no reason Kansas State should be a casual win. It’s hard to beat a team three times in a season, especially a team that makes the Round of 32 (I’m writing this Saturday morning so it could even be a fellow Sweet 16 team unless America’s UMBC Retrievers keep the magic going). The Wildcats pushed us to the brink in Allen Fieldhouse earlier in the season. They’re tough, physical, it’s a game we would seem to need Udoka.

Yet the biggest point margin of the three contests took place in Kansas City. Jayhawks win, 83-67.

Alright. Ok. Surely this run would end with West Virginia, right? Konate eating Lightfoot and De Sousa alive? We didn’t even need to win. By making the Big 12 championship, the Number 1 seed was secured. We were safe. Plus it might be nice for Jevon Carter and Darius Miles to finish their awesome careers at West Virginia with a Big 12 tournament title. There’s sentimental value there. Self is friends with Bob Huggins too. And we’d enter the NCAA Tournament with a loss, stay hungry, we don’t need it.

De Sousa has his best game of the season, scoring 16 points and pulling down 10 rebounds. Graham dished out 13 assists, Newman scored 20 again. Jayhawks win, 81-70.

The team that once looked like a 7 seed had climbed all the way to the top. Number 1 seed in the Midwest, playing in Wichita followed by (hopefully) Omaha. In terms of regular season achievements, there’s not much higher than that.

NCAA Tournament

And yet the doubts continued, even for the first round matchup against Number 16 seeded Penn. The Quakers were number 10 in the country in 3-pt defense and top 30 in rebounding. Their biggest strength was stopping our biggest strength. Their second biggest strength was where we might be at our weakest considering Doke would only be used in “emergency situations.”

And you know Kansas, those Jayhawks are vulnerable to first-round exits…

Except we’re really not. It’s kind of like a marriage fight that references something that happened 20 years ago. We still remind Bill Self about Bucknell, and Bradley, and that time he forgot to pick up the milk, but worth pointing out: those happened 12 and 13 years ago! Self has made it to at least the second round ever since. No one has a longer streak; not Roy, not K, not Izzo, not Calipari.

And boy am I glad we played Penn before UMBC upset Virginia. I would have been sweating way more than I already was in that first half. UMBC was ranked Number 184 in KenPom, Penn was 127. We had more of a case to lose to Penn than Virginia did with UMBC. And wouldn’t that have fit some of the unfortunate milestones of this team?

First Self team to lose three times in Allen Fieldhouse.

First time Self got swept by a Big 12 opponent.

First time a Number 1 lost to a Number 16 seed… 

But these Jayhawks once again rose above the expectations. Devonte` Graham continued his case for National Player of the Year with a stunning 29 point, 6 rebound, 6 assist performance. Vick, who has had his ups and downs, is showing us that the NCAA Tournament is his time to shine. Chipped in 14 points on just seven shots. Newman with 10, Svi with 10, Lightfoot a near double-double. It was a full team effort led by one of the best guards in KU history.

Alright. So we beat a good 16 seed by 16 points. Should I pass out cookies and gold stars to the guys? Go schedule the parade down Mass Street?

Let’s be honest, Doke didn’t look 100 percent. I’d say, at best, might have been 70-75 percent healthy. Didn’t matter too much against a Number 16, but waiting for us next round was a senior-heavy Seton Hall team with a guy by the name of Delgado who is one of the greatest rebounders in the history of college basketball. We haven’t seen anyone of his caliber, Texas A&M would be the closest. And at least against the Aggies Doke wasn’t wearing a knee brace…

This is a Seton Hall team that beat Texas Tech by 10 and pushed Villanova to overtime, a one-point loss. This is where the road made sense to end. We could spend the offseason wondering “What if” Udoka was healthy and look forward to next season with a more traditional KU roster filled with depth and NBA talent. There’s no shame in the Round of 32… 

Especially after the first half. Graham was off. Four turnovers. Ended the half on the bench, looked like he was suffering from a borderline concussion. “KU’s iron man taken out by a teammate’s shoulder.” Or how about the Shakespearian sportswriter, “For alas! It wasn’t Udoka’s knee but his shoulder that ultimately did the Jayhawks in.” It would be the worst possible ending to an incredible season.

And Graham’s shots would continue to rim out. We needed all 29 of Graham’s points against Penn, could we really win against a better opponent on a night when he’d score just eight points?

Delgado continued to dominate inside on his way to a 24 point 23 rebound game. This was the first 20-20 game against a Number 1 seed since Hakeem Olajuwon. The first player to pull down 23 rebounds in the NCAA Tournament in 40 years.

Graham decided, “If my shot’s not gonna fall, it’s time to facilitate.” He ended up with nine assists, igniting the rest of the offense. Malik Newman picked up the scoring load with 28 points and a perfect 8-for-8 from the foul line. Newman is the rare case of a guy who actually wants to be on the line for late game free throws.

Svi chipped in 16, Vick had 13 – all of his threes seemed to come when we needed them most. Vick was a big momentum guy, locked in on defense. Lightfoot had the big dunk at the end.

But it was the big guy who won us this game. Udoka went to war, seemingly getting stronger as the game went on. He scored 10 points, pulled down seven rebounds, two assists, two steals, and two blocks. Even more impressive, Travis Hines points out in this article that Kansas was +21 with Doke on the court and -17 with him off the court. He banged inside with Delgado, a large reason Delgado looked so winded at the end (well, that and Delgado played for 38 minutes).

Seton Hall would just not go away. The Pirates scored 26 points in the first half, they scored 15 points in the final 58 seconds (!). Twelve of those were from Carrington who was playing like a video game with the cheat codes on. Cross half court, dribble, dribble, made three. And again. And again.

We needed Graham and Newman to go 14-of-16 from the foul line. Any more misses and one of those Carrington threes would have been for the win. We needed our four-guard lineup to (barely) break that hectic fullcourt press at the end. And we needed Lightfoot to confidently slam it home.

Even cooler, check out this Tweet by Mitch Lightfoot. You think Doke was bitter not to be on the court at the end, Self rolling with Lightfoot for more reliable free throw shooting? Not at all. This team is all in for each other.

And, oh by the way, Doke quietly went 2-for-4 at the foul line. Small detail, but every point matters at this point.

Sweet 16

There’s no such thing as an upset in the Sweet 16 and beyond. We saw a glimpse against Seton Hall, the teams that get this far have a whole lot of heart and don’t go down easily.

A ton of talent too. We will either face the SEC regular season champs (Auburn) or Clemson who finished right behind Virginia, Duke, North Carolina in the loaded ACC. Those two teams, similar to us, have been doubted from the very beginning, picked to finish much lower in their conference.

The Sweet 16, historically, has been kind to KU. Bill Self is an impressive 7-2 in the Sweet 16. And it makes sense, give him and his coaching staff a week to prepare, the Jayhawks become really hard to beat.

I also want to gush real quick about how sneaky good Bill Self is in the NCAA Tournament. Ryan Rinehart posted this on Twitter, take a look at these coaching accomplishments:

That’s how good things are at Kansas, we see seven trips to the Elite Eight as a bad thing. Two Final Fours out of those seven as a severe underachievement. It reminds me a little bit of LeBron James “only” having three rings after eight trips to the NBA Finals. Would we look at his career better had he bowed out earlier in the playoffs? Or missed the playoffs entirely? What’s wrong with making a deep run even if the end result, in Self’s case a Final Four, doesn’t always happen? He’s putting his guys in position 50 percent of his tournament appearances.

I say this, because–if we get past Clemson or Auburn–the teams likely waiting for us in the Elite Eight will be the favorite and an incredibly difficult matchup. We had a hard time with Delgado, now enter Duke who has two guys in Wendell Carter and Marvin Bagley III that are just as big and projected to be NBA Lottery picks. Think about this, Svi or Vick is going to have to guard one of them in the paint (course, they’re going to have to guard him too on the perimeter).

And then there’s Michigan State. IF the Spartans beat Syracuse, this is the worst matchup for us in the tournament. Jackson and Miles Bridges are both lottery picks, both big frontcourt players. Nick Ward and Tillman are like Delgado + 50 lbs. Unless Lightfoot and De Sousa eat nothing but hamburgers for the next week, I have no idea how we will matchup. The rebounding margin could be humiliating.

Villanova is the Vegas favorite to win the NCAA Tournament. Duke and Michigan State are right behind at No. 2 and No. 3. Add that together and an Elite Eight loss would not be a disappointment, we will be the heavy underdogs. Yeah, it’d be another “Bill Self Elite Eight loss,” but there’s really no shame in that, especially given the opponents.

But doesn’t that sound familiar? There’s no shame in losing to West Virginia without Udoka. No shame in losing to Kansas State, beating a team three times is really hard to do. No shame in losing to West Virginia, we already got the Number 1 seed. Hey, that 16 seed is really really good and look what happened with UMBC and Virginia. Seton Hall, they’re just too good and we’re not healthy, plus Graham’s having an off-shooting night. 

Different than any Kansas team of the last 14 years, this team knows what it’s like to have this strange combination of disappointing the expectations (the losses in Allen Fieldhouse, the Oklahoma State sweep) and rising above lowered expectations (insert the long list here, capped off by winning the Big 12 and making the Sweet 16).

Again, I don’t want to jump ahead because Clemson and Auburn are both really good teams, but this incredible season is all leading toward a collision course with two teams (Michigan State and Duke) that are built like the traditional Bill Self Kansas teams. Both have strong frontcourts. NBA talent. Hall-of-fame coach. It would be a fitting final challenge for this team; can they get to the Final Four with heart over talent, beating the kind of powerhouse team that they have been in the shadows of all season long.

The crazy thing is, they might just do it.

We’re spoiled.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Kansas 14

Available on

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s