There’s something to be said for losing in the Final Four in blowout fashion to a team that breaks a couple NCAA records along the way.
To start off, you’re already happy your team made the Final Four. Even more so if you beat arguably the most talented team in the tournament, a team that you’ve hated for over 30 years. The fact the blowout started about a minute into the game helps a lot, too. There is never any time to work up any angst or anger and you’re able to just sit and watch. Eventually you find yourself hoping your team’s opponent keeps hitting shots; if they’re going to lose big, the record books might as well have to be updated because of it.
That sums up my experience Saturday night as KU’s season ended against one of the most impressive performances ever dropped in a Final Four.
Our family celebrated Easter on Saturday, so I had lots of distractions during the day. My belly was full and I was sleepy late in the afternoon. Instead of focusing on the game and building up stress, I was hoping my gut would pass out of Uncomfortable phase by the time the game began so I could drink some beer. Pretty sure this was the least stressed out I’ve ever felt going into a Final Four game.
Villanova coming on literally on fire – yes, literally, I know I saw smoke coming off of several of their players – and putting the game away pretty much immediately was a blessing. There was no yelling or screaming, no throwing of objects in my basement. Only once was there a glimmer of hope. KU went on a 7–0 run to cut the margin to 22–11. A couple stops, a couple more makes, and the deficit would be manageable and who knows what happens.
Nova hit three-straight 3s while KU hit a couple 2s, and the game was over.
KU has blown people out twice in the Final Four. In 2003 they beat Marquette by 33, leading by 40 much of the game. But that was a very different game; KU hit 53% from the field, but only hit 8 3s. They just carved up Marquette inside all day while holding them to 31% from the field.
And there was the amazing North Carolina game in 2008, when KU was once up by 28 in the first half, causing a rather famous comment on TV. Much of that run was fueled by 3-point shooting, but after the first 10 minutes, KU only hit one more 3 in the game and ended with just five for the night. Carolina got back into the game, cutting the lead to 4 midway through the second half, before KU took control again and won by 18.
As impressive as both of those games were, they aren’t even in the same chapter as what Villanova did Saturday. KU gave them open looks early, but after that there was a stretch when I thought KU actually guarded the shooters fairly well. But hitting those first three were enough to get every Nova player locked in. I swear there were a couple where the defender had two hands right in the shooter’s face, the shooter barely looked before releasing the ball, and they still barely moved the net.
I guess it’s one thing to play poorly, which KU certainly did. Forget about guarding the 3 and getting open looks on the other end. At one point KU was shooting less than 30% from inside the arc. They were taking bad, forced shots, doing the proverbial “trying to make a 12-point shot” thing that teams in the midst of panic often try.
But it’s another thing for the opponent to do something historic. No one was beating Villanova Saturday. Not Michigan or Loyola. Not Virginia or another strong defensive team. Those dudes were locked in and on a mission. It was impressive to watch, even if it was my team on the wrong end of the beat down.
There was no blaming the refs, getting upset at KU players, or wondering what the hell Bill Self was doing. This blowout was 90% Nova.
(An aside too long for a footnote: I hate the “What if Player X had played?” thought experiments. I know as fans we have to do them, but I hate that people take them seriously. Last year after the Oregon game, it was “What if Udoka had played?” The answer was simple: Jordan Bell would have blocked all of his shots, too. And these questions ignore how adding Player X impacts everyone else. Would Josh Jackson have been as good as he was if Udoka had played all year and Self had not gone all-in with four perimeter players? KU might win two more games with Udoka last year, but they also might lose five more because Josh never gets locked in.
This came up Saturday when people started pointing out, “Hey, what if Billy Preston had played? He was much better suited to chasing Spellman and Paschall all night.” Which ignores would Udoka have been as good as he was if Billy had played 25 minutes a night all year. Would KU have won some of those tight games against West Virginia, or in Lubbock if a young Billy was on the court late instead of four experienced guards? Maybe Billy helps them win three games they lost, but maybe he also causes them to lose three games they won. It’s not worth the mental overhead to dive into these questions.)
So I was never worked up Saturday and quickly moved on to appreciating this KU team for what they accomplished. They fought through all the distractions of the Preston affair. There were some dark days in mid-December, after losing to Washington and Arizona State back-to-back. There was frustration about Malik Newman, who looked nothing like the unstoppable scorer KU fans had been promised. There was the early loss at home to Texas Tech, who looked like a much, much better team for that entire game. Getting their asses kicked at home to Oklahoma State in early February was the clear low point. At that point I was wondering if KU could even go 9–9 in the Big 12. A terrible loss a week later at Baylor didn’t help; 9–9 and a 4 or 5 seed based on non-conference wins seemed like a reasonable hope.
But even I forgot it was February and this was Bill Self’s team. They got a little better every game and played their best basketball of the year from the road game against Texas Tech, at which they clinched at least a tie of the Big 12, through the closing moments of the Elite 8 win over Duke.
Malik Newman suddenly became the guy everyone wanted him to be, scoring from behind the arc and at the rim. Lagerald Vick shook off a months-long slump and became the dangerous guy who burned you if you eased off him to put pressure on someone else. Silvio De Sousa might have saved the season by becoming a legit rotation player. Udoka Azubuike became an unstoppable force when he could stay on the court.
And Devonté Graham somehow matched, or even surpassed a little, Frank Mason III’s legendary season from a year ago. Last year was supposed to be DTae’s year, until Josh Jackson became the best one-and-done player in KU history and Frank went all BIFM on everyone all year. Devonté had to carry way more weight than Frank did last year. He scored at nearly the same clip and tossed 2+ more dimes a game than Frank did. His defense suffered this year, but he still made plays when it mattered. He was clearly either worn down or injured over the past two weeks, but willed his way through games to set up his teammates for huge plays late in games. And now, like BIFM, his jersey is going to hang from the south rafters at Allen Fieldhouse in a few years.
This is the team that extended the Big 12 title streak to 14 straight years and hung the program’s 15th Final Four banner. There’s no way I can be upset about that regardless of the score of the final game.
Villanova was just a lot better.
Looking ahead, DTae and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk are both graduating. Most folks thought Malik Newman was gone regardless as this is his third year out of high school. I’ve said all year he needed to take a look at Keith Langford’s career, swallow his ego a little, go play 15 years in Europe and make a lot of money. His play over the past month has certainly helped his draft stock, but he still seems like a Euro or China league all star to me. The difference, though, is now his leaving feels right rather than like an escape. And he leaves being loved by KU fans. I figure he’s 85% gone.
I think Udoka puts his name in for the draft, does the combine circuit, and most likely comes back. His body and game do not fit what the NBA wants from big men. He returns, adds to his game over the summer, and leaves either for the NBA or Europe next year. I think it’s 70–30 that Udoka returns.
Lagerald Vick has been the question mark all year. A year ago “experts” said he was probably the best NBA player on the roster after Josh Jackson because of his size and athleticism. He’s got that 3-and-D potential the NBA loves. Throughout this season that seemed crazy. He often looked lost and/or disinterested on the court, couldn’t hit shots anymore, and often struggled to just dribble the ball. I don’t know if the last month changed much for him. I also wonder, though, if he’s in one of those situations where the decision was made long ago and that’s why KU went out and signed another wing, Ochai Agbaji, last month. Vick returning would be huge, though, as KU has no proven shooters if he’s gone. His decision probably interests me the most. 50–50 on LGV.
Finally, you look at the roster and see if anyone else might leave. Sam Cunliffe seems like the most likely candidate. He rarely got on the court after becoming eligible and when he did, often drew Self’s ire within seconds and was immediately returned to the bench. But where does he go? He’s already sat out a full year. Would he be willing to do that again to get a chance to play? Would he consider going to a D2 school so he could play right away? I have no idea what he’s thinking or if another year in the program means he could push through what will be a crowded wing position even if Vick leaves.
Some folks are concerned about Silvio De Sousa leaving. I don’t believe he’s officially eligible to leave for the NBA, and his guardian said when Silvio enrolled he expected him to be in college at least through next season. But the G-League or overseas are options if his primary interest is getting paid. 90% Silvio is back.
Regardless of how those guys shake out, KU is going to be real, real good again next year. They will be real, real big, too. Not many teams will have the size KU should have with Udoka, Silvio, 6’9” do-everything junior Dedric Lawson, and 6’10” beast David McCormack. There will not be many shooters, though, so it will be interesting to see how a team full of bigs and slashers competes in March as the game shifts more to the perimeter.
Oh, tonight? Villanova is clearly the best team in the country. They’re playing like they’re on a mission, and they seem to be fully healthy. I think Michigan matches up with them a lot better than KU did, as UM has bigs that can chase Spellman and Paschall outside. They have athletic guards that might be able to contain Nova’s backcourt. And Nova could play really well tonight, but there’s no way they’re shooting like they did Saturday again. Michigan has a really good chance. But I think Nova is just too good.
Villanova 85, Michigan 80
Rock Chalk, bitches.