The end of the season always sucks. Unless your team is the last one standing, in our winner-takes-all world, we too easily forget about the bulk of the season and focus on the ending. And in most cases, endings are never good. Is it better to lose by 50? To lose by one at the buzzer? Something in between? Any way the season ends and something that brought us great joy has been taken away.
Not much to say about the KU-UCLA game. I can’t sleep, so I thought I’d try to tap out some thoughts, since I just lay in bed thinking about the game. And, believe it or not, I’m taking this about 1000 times better than I took losses as recently as four years ago (The real reason I can’t watch North Carolina games or give Roy Williams a break? The fact he waited until we were down 20 to put Kirk Hinrich on Gerry McNamara. Seriously, I’m more pissed about that, still, than our loss tonight. What the fuck was he thinking?). I’ve been trading e-mails with people, reading through a discussion list, and come to some kind of peace about the game. When you miss that many relatively easy shots and your opponent knocks down every difficult shot, well, it’s not your night. And in March, that means it’s not your year. I thought we played a little too fast most of the night, which caused many of those close misses. But give UCLA credit, they were challenging a good portion of those shots. I thought the difference in experience levels was a major factor. UCLA played for the national championship last year. Our guys flamed out against Bradley. UCLA didn’t get phased by our early runs, or the fact we were taking the ball away from them at will. They sat back, had confidence in their defense, and expected to remain close enough so that if they could put together a run, they would seize control. That’s exactly what happened. I wonder if the seedings had any factor. I always thought KU getting the #2 to Arizona’s #1 in 2003 was a major factor in our victory over them in that year’s regional finals. Might UCLA have been playing with a little chip on their shoulders? Who knows, but in a game of teams this closely matched, it might have helped.
I thought the biggest shot of the game was Arron Afflalo’s three at the buzzer of the first half. The second biggest shot was his drive to the hoop just a few moments earlier. First, his three gave them a four point lead after being outplayed for almost the entire half. Second, both shots got him fired up and confident. Brandon Rush had been in his face the entire first half, picking up two blocks along the way. Afflalo, not known as a guy who excels when he’s facing adversity, was on the ropes. But the lay-up and the three reminded him that he’s an All-American, and he carried the Bruins from there.
I think Afflalo is a fine example for B-Rush to follow should he decide to stay at KU for another year. Like Rush, Afflalo arrived in Westwood as a high school all-everything and faced the pressures that came with that. Not until his junior year did Arron really blossom. Brandon’s had a fine career, so far, but I keep thinking there is more he can do. I like to think if he returns, he’s going to be the guy who hits the huge shots that get KU to San Antonio next March.
In fact, the entire UCLA team can be an example for KU. Let’s assume, for a moment, that everyone is back. One more McDonald’s AA will join the squad adding another pure low post guy. Another guard for some depth. You figure Darrell Arthur and Sherron Collins make the typical jumps from frosh-to-soph. And every other player refines their game a bit. As UCLA has carried the memory of that beat-down they took from Florida last year, hopefully KU can carry the memory of this game with them. The realization of how close they were, how a few plays here and there can make a difference. How everyone has to come to play every minute of every game. Perhaps that, along with another year of experience, is the difference next spring.
And now comes the waiting game. A month of waiting and wondering who, if any, KU players will declare for the draft. I look at them and don’t see a player ready to be a solid NBA player yet. But that isn’t why most kids declare or why teams draft people. Fortunately, it’s expected to be a very deep draft year. Maybe Brandon Rush is a top ten pick in a weak year (last year). This year? I don’t know. Julian Wright is listed as high as #3 on some lists. He’s said he’s coming back for sure. We’ll see if that’s the case after he thinks about it some more. Might Sasha Kaun decide to go play in Europe? Might Darnell Jackson think a CBA gig, or one in Europe as well, is the right move for his family? Pins and needles before we can really start dreaming about next year.
To wrap up, I have to take a big picture look. This team got much, much better over the course of the season. They were great fun to watch as they grew as individuals and as a team. They became one of my favorite KU teams in recent memory. I think the coach, who now apparently has an Elite Eight monkey on his back, proved that he’s worthy of running the program. The team finally took on Bill Self’s personality this year, which I think had a lot to do with their success. He’s not perfect, but he’s damn good and I think he’s got the program as good as its been by every measure except for Final Four appearances. And those should come. There will be some disappointment associated with the final result, but this team gave me too much joy to declare the season a failure because of one game.