This was our year. The 2016-17 Kansas Jayhawks were a loaded squad. All the pieces were in place. A veteran backcourt which has been hailed as the best in the country. The toughest player in the nation who went from afterthought recruit to the National Player of the Year. An assassin three-point shooter riding shotgun. A top three NBA pick who can do everything on the basketball court. A fifth year Senior Center who does all the little things and is the best post defender KU has had in a decade. Five interchangeable guards who can all stroke it from deep. Slick and athletic, this team could run past anyone. They were led by a soon-to-be-Hall of Fame coach who has learned this season more than any that adapting his style to fit his talent he has was the way to go.
Breezing through and winning their record 13th straight Big 12 title by four games was impressive enough, but this team seemed to have "it." They trailed in games more times than they should have, but always seemed to figure out how to get it done and win. It was the will of their leader, Frank Mason, who has etched his name in Kansas basketball lore forever with a season that will go down as one of the best we've ever seen. It all set up perfectly. The Midwest Regionals were being played in Kansas City, 39 miles from the KU campus in Lawrence. Three straight 90+ point blow out wins where the deep shooting was astounding, led us to Saturday's date with destiny. It seemed like a forgone conclusion. 18,000 plus fans, 95% percent of which were rooting for the Crimson and Blue, weren't going to let Kansas lose. Not with Mason at the helm, not with Josh Jackson being completely unguardable, not with the way KU was shooting the three ball. It was all there for them.
Their opponent, the Ducks of Oregon, had barely escaped a second round game with Rhode Island and were a Derrick Walton missed jumper from having their season end at the hands of Michigan two days earlier. This team, without starting Center, best shot blocker and excellent three point shooter Chris Boucher, couldn't possibly derail the KU freight train.
Me? I was surprisingly and uncharacteristically calm in the hours leading up to the game. That is usually a bad sign. A year ago Sunday, my wife, kids and I drove to Louisville to see KU play in the South Regional Final against Villanova. I was very calm going into that one as well. KU just seemed built to get to the Final Four these past two seasons, loaded with veteran players. But this year's version had something last year's didn't - a true superstar pro player. I just didn't see how anyone was going to beat KU in front of that crowd with Mason and Jackson being as good as they had been all season.
And then it happened.
Jackson picked up two quick fouls and was a spectator most of the first half. Oregon's Jordan Bell was an absolute beast both protecting the rim and on the glass. He ate Landen Lucas for dinner. Seemingly every time one of the KU guards drove to the lane, Bell was there to either block the shot or alter it. He was the difference. When Jackson did come back on the floor - way too early and for way too long in the first half - he was completely passive. Lagerald Vick was playing well with Jackson on the bench and KU played Oregon even. When Jackson returned, they might as well have been going four on five. JJ played scared to pick up his third foul and for someone who thrives on his aggressiveness on both ends of the floor, it was counterproductive. It hurt the team. I could see it, I just don't know how Bill Self couldn't. With 1:15 left in the first half and the Oregon lead down to three, Jackson let Dylan Ennis go right by him for an easy layup to put them back up five. Why Jackson was still on the floor at this point was beyond me. This Ennis layup was the start of the game-changing sequence.
KU turned the ball over and with 50 seconds left in the half Oregon went two for one. Tyler Dorsey took a contested pull up three which hit both sides of the rim, then off the glass and went in. After another KU turnover, Dorsey held the ball to take the last shot. He hoisted a straight on three from 30 feet that hit high off the window and banked in at the buzzer. A three point lead went to 11 just like that. For all intents and purposes, the game ended right there.
Things never really improved in the second half. I've seen this move so many times before. The shots KU has hit from three all year just weren't falling. 1996 - My sophomore year against Syracuse in the Elite Eight in Denver, KU shot 4-26 from three and lost 60-57. In 2010 as the overall number one seed, a loaded KU team lost to ninth seeded Northern Iowa in the second round 69-67 and shot 6-23 from deep. The next year as a prohibitive favorite in the Elite Eight against 11th seeded VCU, the Hawks shot 2-21 from three in a 71-61 loss. Last year against Villanova, with a trip to the Final Four on the line, they were 6-22. I thought this particular group would change that narrative and get over that hump with the way they scorch the nets from behind the arc. Instead, Oregon's matchup zone extended so far out, the KU shooters never got going. They entered the game fourth nationally in three point shooting percentage at 41.1%.
Last night? 20% on 5-25.
Said coach Self after his seventh Elite Eight losses in nine tries: "I kept saying, ‘Hey, somebody’s gonna make a shot, the lid’s coming off, we’re gonna be fine.’ We never did.”
Even after all of that, KU had their chance and once again it slipped through their fingers, literally, Down six with two minutes left and Oregon playing not to lose for the last seven minutes, Dorsey lost track of the shot clock and flung the ball at the basket, nobody for the Ducks was underneath. KU had four guys for the rebound. Jackson deflected the ball away from Mason who was their to grab it and it ended up in the hands of Bell. The Ducks ran 25 more seconds off the clock and stuck the dagger in the hearts of the Jayhawks (and me) with yet another three to seal it.
"It just wasn't meant to be." Ah, bullshit. Everything was lined up for KU too perfectly, but the shots just didn't fall. They came out tight and played tight almost the entire time. It was almost as if they were waiting to once again flip that switch they had flipped so many times this season. Double digit deficits meant nothing to this group. Mason and company always seemed to find a way. Not last night, despite Frank doing everything he could. The soon to be named National Player of the Year ended his career with 21 points four rebounds and four assists. After the game, he tweeted this:
Feel like my life is over, thanks for everything Jayhawk Nation. You guy will forever have a special place in my heart. ❤️💙— Frank Mason (@FrankMason0) March 26, 2017
This kid will go down as one of my all time favorite Jayhawks. My heart breaks for him more than anyone. Nobody deserved to get to the Final Four more than he did. While the rest of his team didn't show, Frank showed out.
There is plenty of fingerpoint that can be easy to do. Devonte Graham, who has always played his best in big games, was 0-7 from the field, 0-5 from deep. Neither he nor Jackson made a field goal in a first half which saw KU trail by 11. Jackson played probably his worst game since the calendar turned. Lucas was dominated by Bell. Coach Self not going small to bring Bell away from the basket was a huge mistake and like with going to the press in the 2010 loss to Northern Iowa, something this obvious wasn't called upon until it was too late.
From a personal standpoint, this was just something I didn't need. The wounds of the World Series game seven loss are too fresh and won't ever heal. This KU team was the current joy in my sports life (sorry I'm not a Cavs fan). It was a welcome distraction from some of the things that have kept me down over the past few months in my personal life. This team had it all and with the KC regional, I just couldn't fathom not winning this game. I was going to Arizona next weekend for the Final Four. Everything was set. All they had to do was play their normal game.
Instead, I got 5-25 from deep and a rerun. I've seen this movie before. Too many times.