So yeah, the purpose of my weekend visit to Louisville ended up sucking quite a bit. That didn’t mean the whole weekend was a bust, though.
There are quite a few stories to share, so I think I’ll split this up into two or even three posts to keep it manageable/readable.
Let’s start with the game and KU going out of the tournament a week too early.
It was insanely frustrating watching the game in person. Even when KU had rather choppy games during their 17-game winning streak, there was almost always the sense that they were in control of the game. If they played poorly in the first half, you knew they were going to make adjustments at halftime and take control before the final buzzer.
There was never that feeling in the arena Saturday. Any time KU put together a mini-run, Villanova immediately answered. KU could not get out in transition. They couldn’t run their offense. When they got shots, they couldn’t hit them. All that combined with the stakes of the game meant my blood pressure was at least 15% higher than ideal for the entire contest. I don’t think I sent any texts with steady hands in the final 10:00 of the game.
I give great credit to Villanova. Jay Wright had a gutsy game plan: shut down Perry Ellis and dare the rest of the Jayhawks to beat them from outside. I say that’s gutsy because KU was the second-best 3-point shooting team in the country this year. That’s a big gamble. If Frank Mason and Wayne Selden could have joined Devonte’ Graham in hitting some threes early, the Wildcats could have been both down big and forced to play KU straight-up, allowing Ellis to go to work down low.
But that gamble paid off.
The most frustrating thing to me was how this game fit the pattern of so many KU losses in March over the past 25 years: the Jayhawks were ice-cold from behind the arc and it absolutely killed them. Aside from Graham, the rest of the Jayhawks combined to go 1–13 from three. That was like the VCU, Northern Iowa, Arizona, and UTEP games of Marches past. Hit just a few of those misses and KU is in Houston.
Frustration number two: Villanova played incredible scouting report defense. They kept blowing up KU’s dribble hand-offs at the top of the key. In fact, take away the points ‘Nova got on those plays alone and KU wins. That wasn’t frustrating because they played so well. It was frustrating because they got those steals by being very aggressive and physical, basically running through the screener/passer to get the ball. There was never a whistle on those plays. But Graham fouled out and three of his fouls were on plays awfully similar to what Villanova was not getting whistled for. Balance out even two of those calls – take a foul away from Graham and call one on ‘Nova – and it’s a different game.
Frustration number three: KU actually played really well on defense. They held Villanova to 20 points below their tournament average and by far their worst outside shooting percentage of the tournament. That should have been good enough to get the win. But Villanova was just a little bit better on defense. And where KU couldn’t string together makes, ‘Nova did just enough on offense to put together three runs that were the difference.
What a terrible way for Perry Ellis to go out. Thursday against Maryland he looked like that classic senior who was absolutely locked in and would not let his team lose. We hung around in the lobby of the team hotel before they left for the arena Saturday, and Perry was the first guy on the bus. He looked like he was ready to go, and we were sure he was 40 minutes away from getting his team to the Final Four. For perhaps the first time all season, he reverted to passive Perry, though, as Villanova surrounded and hounded him. He had a fabulous career. It was a rare one in that I don’t know that he was really loved by a lot of KU fans until this year. You couldn’t ask for a better face of the program, though. He will be missed.
The KFC Yum! Center is an amazing building. With a terrible name, obviously. It is huge, gorgeous, and a fine place to watch a game. We had really good seats, in the corner on the Villanova bench side, maybe half way up. Still fairly close to the floor but high enough that we could see the action. The arena was probably 65–70% KU fans, but we were right on the edge of the main Villanova section. Which was not a lot of fun. At least they had a reason to celebrate. The Louisville fans who couldn’t sell their tickets and came to the game were more annoying, though. They kept doing their stupid “C-A-R-D-S!” cheer during timeouts and putting their “L” sign with their thumbs, index, and middle fingers up in the air. If KU had been up by 10 I could have asked them where their team was and why they didn’t make the tournament.
By the way, I am now 0–2 career at NCAA tournament games. And KU is 0–3 while I’ve watched them in person in the eastern time zone. Guess I better not try to go to the game in Lexington next season. Or any games ever in Cincinnati should they join the Big 12 at some point. Luckily I don’t have to worry about KU every playing in Indy in the NCAA tournament. With one exception, they lose early when that is a possibility.
In the end, it is terribly disappointing that KU’s season is over. Despite going to the game, I feel less bad about this loss than any pre-Final Four loss in a long time. Part of that is because I’ve watched Villanova a lot the past few years. I knew they were really, really good. I like their coach and several of their players. Maybe they should have been a #1 seed, or maybe KU deserved a different #2 as the overall #1. That doesn’t matter. I think we got beat by a fine team that was just a little better than us. If these teams played 10 times, it would probably be pretty even over that span.
This team won 33 games. They won the Big 12 regular season and tournament. They got much better over the course of the season. They were the #1 overall seed in the tournament. They didn’t lose for two months, winning 17-straight games in that span. They made it to the Elite 8. They probably played about as well as they possibly could. It’s a shame they fell one game short of getting to hang their own banner in Allen Fieldhouse. But I don’t think there’s any reason to feel devastated or angry about this loss. I understand people who do, but to me, this loss isn’t one that’s going to cause great regret as I look back on it in a year or five.
Losing sucks. It sucks more when you travel to watch in person. But losing by five in the Elite 8 to a team that had a legit argument for being a #1 seed hurts a lot less than some of KU’s shittier loses over the years.
This was a hell of a team. They just game up a game short of being historic.
Rock Chalk, bitches.
- Rule of Fandom #18: 90% of other team’s traditions are stupid and your team’s traditions are above reproach. ↩