What a god damn game! (Excuse the blasphemy.)
KU never makes it easy in the Elite 8. It’s a hard-ass game in a killer tournament where one bad performance can wreck a season of excellence. For every Kansas-Duke in 2018 and KU-UNC in 2012 – wide-open, flowing games where the teams exchange big shot after big shot until one finally flinches – you have way more games like Kansas-Villanova 2016, which was a disgusting rock fight that was physically draining to watch.
KU has a special gift for playing tight in that round, for missing chances to break those games open, for trying to make a five-point play when they just need a single bucket, and for guys who have shot lights-out for weeks suddenly being unable to find the rim. Or just flat playing like garbage like they did in 2007 against UCLA and 2017 against Oregon.
For 20 minutes Saturday, it sure felt like we were headed down that ugly path again. Miami, a team that according to the advanced stats had a shocking similarity to 2011 VCU, used a 9–2 run late in the first half to go into halftime with a six-point lead over the Jayhawks. If not for a fantastic defensive possession by KJ Adams, who played just the final 30 seconds of the first half before the benches got cleared, it could have been worse.
Kameron McGusty was torching the Jayhawks. Every single KU player seemed tentative. They kicked the ball around needlessly. They bricked all five 3-point attempts, four of which were basically unguarded. They missed six damn free throws.
Nightmare time was coming.
I only know what my halftime texts were like, but I imagine they were similar to others by KU fans all over the country. The gist of mine was that Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun needed to stop being scared of making a mistake and play with abandon. Miami is a nice little team, but they can’t match those two when they are at their best. I was more direct: Bill Self should tell Ochai his jersey will not go in the rafters if he doesn’t stop playing like dogshit. Or something like that. Och had 20 minutes to reclaim his legacy and not have idiots like me being irrationally angry at him the way we were angry with Jacque Vaughn for playing terribly in his final tournament game.
Now, a quick rewind. I was a little more tense than usual because of where and how I watched the game. We are on spring break in Siesta Key, FL. We spent the day with some friends a few miles down the beach and rather than come home, I borrowed their condo room and TV.
While happy to be able to watch with minimal loss of beach time, their condo did not have the ideal tech setup. Yes, they had a large TV with HD cable. However, there was something weird about the aspect ratio on their TV and the sides of the CBS picture were cut off, as if the picture had been stretched. This had the added effect of making everything on the screen look very flat. So arcing jumpers looked more like lasers. I dug through every TV and cable box setting I could find and couldn’t get the aspect corrected.
Their cable would also blink out for half a second every so often.
And their wifi was absolute crap and I couldn’t load Twitter or any box scores.
Plus I had barely one bar of Verizon signal, so texts were coming in sporadically.
None of this helped my nerves.
Finally, my hosts’ 15-year-old son and five of his friends came in to grab some food right as Miami was making their run before halftime. I couldn’t throw things or drop loud F-bombs while they were around because then I would look like a complete lunatic. One of them noticed the score and said, loudly, “DAMN, MIAMI IS BEATING KANSAS???”
Long story short, I was feeling some stress. And given Bill Self’s face was as red in the first minute of the game as it had been all year, and he’s not know for being carefree and easy in the Elite 8, I must admit my confidence was low that things would get much better in the second half. I didn’t think KU was necessarily doomed quite yet. Still I figured the next hour would be an absolutely awful experience and likely add a few more days/months/years to the total that KU basketball has taken off my life.
Fortunately Ochai, Christian, McCormack, DaJuan Harris, Remy Martin, Jalen Wilson, and Mitch Lightfoot played maybe the best half of basketball KU has played all season and all that stress went away.
It was breathtaking. Their defensive pressure was astonishing and totally shut down Miami’s attack. The long outlet passes, which had been like a 50–50 proposition all year yet worked every time in that opening surge. The withering offensive attack. McCormack playing like a man who did not want his career to end despite some serious physical struggles.
Just as the second half began L came up from the beach with her godmother (our hostess). C came up a few minutes later. They sat with me, and enjoyed watching me as much as the game. I screamed. I yelled. I smacked the table and the couch. I howled when Braun dunked on one possession and hit a massive 3 on the next to give KU a lead they never gave up. I ran towards the TV screaming when Ochai finally hit a 3-pointer. Yet I was still probably 43% calmer than I would have been at home. I would have busted out the old “run around the house” move after a few of those plays.
The game was tied at 40-all. The final score was 76–50. That’s a 36–10 run for my fellow liberal arts majors. That was right up there with the run to close the Sweet 16 game against Purdue in 2017 and the run to open the national semifinal against North Carolina in 2008 as best runs in Self’s KU tournament history. Sure, it was just Miami. As noted above, though, KU has lost these games before. To not just win, but to destroy Miami’s souls along the way, was an amazingly cathartic moment for KU fans.
KU fans have waited all year for this team to figure things out defensively. It seems they have finally done it, slowly but consistently, over the past six weeks. By one measure, KU has been the best team in the country since Feb. 1 when you look at combined offensive and defensive effectiveness. It’s not always a lock-down D, but it does just enough to limit teams from getting what they want on consecutive possessions. Which is exactly what you need in March.
Now, after a bracket that seemed to be breaking for KU every step of the way they go to New Orleans and face…Villanova. No program has created more nightmares for KU in the last decade than Villanova. The Wildcats kept KU out of the Final Four in 2016. They ran them out of the Final Four in 2018. They beat the team that had Wiggins, Embiid, Selden, Ellis, etc back in November of 2013. I believe Bill Self is something like 3–5 against Jay Wright, but it sure feels worse than that because of those March losses. Wright’s teams always seem built to counter Self’s teams perfectly on both ends.
Let’s not forget that one of those Self wins was in Detroit in 2008, when KU ran Nova off the floor in the Sweet 16.
It might help that Villanova lost second-leading scorer Justin Moore to a season-ending injury Saturday. KU can’t be sure of the health of McCormack, so that could be a wash.
Win that and you get Carolina or Duke. No media frenzies in either of those matchups.
But that’s all a week away. Us fans get a week to bask in the glow of a 16th Final Four while the team rests and preps. I can worry about Villanova on our flight home next week, which hopefully gets us home just in time for tip.
Rock Chalk, bitches!