Kansas is a 4.5-points favorite against Villanova Saturday in the first of two NCAA Tournament semifinal games. Duke and North Carolina will follow at approximately 7:49; the Blue Devils are a 4-points favorite.
Hello, Awesome Saturday Night. Except …
If you see a Kansas fan between now and then, and if he or she is gnawing on tree bark and unable to mumble a complete sentence, move along. Yes, the Jayhawks are favorites. Yes, Kansas has a basketball tradition as rich as anyone’s.
But yes, Kansas come Tournament time is a heartache waiting to happen.
East Coast. West Coast. Midwest. Deep South. Historically, the Kansas basketball program has arguably left more hoop-loving hearts broken all over this great land and on the Final Four Road than any other program that’s ever dared nail up a peach basket.
They’ve got the awesome old-school gym. The simple, bright, cheerful uniforms you could probably wear to church and get away with. That happy-go-lucky Jayhawk mascot.
It’s a program that’s strung together a ridiculous 31 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, the most ever. All the Jayhawks do is win.
Until it’s time to finish. Kansas has only three NCAA Tournament titles in its illustrious history.
Which is three more than lots of programs, for sure. Most anyone would trade for what Kansas has been able to do, generation after generation.
And still, their reputation is that of a Bracket Buster. Kansas giveth, and Kansas taketh away. Saturday will mark the program’s 16th trip to the Final Four, which means that for all their trips to the mountaintop, the Jayhawks have left as King of the Hill only once every five times.
They’ve been runners-up six times, college basketball’s equivalent of baseball’s 1950s’ Brooklyn Dodgers and 1990s’ Atlanta Braves.
In 2010, Northern Iowa, historically one of the finest programs in all of the great state of Iowa, bounced them out.
In 2011 as the Tournament’s No.1-seed, Kansas was dismissed by VCU in the Elite Eight. (Time flies; Shaka Smart seems like last week.)
2014, they got Stanford-ed, although it’s important to remember that Kansas was Joel Embiid-less thanks to an unfortunate injury.
2016 and 2018, well, we’ll come back to that in a sec.
In 2020, the Jayhawks were ranked No. 1 in some polls and … The Ultimate Indignity … the Tournament was pandemically cancelled.
So here they are again with head-scratching Kansas, never ranked No. 1 this season, yet champions of the Midwest Regional and the only No.1 Regional seed left in the ballgame. If you are a Kansas fan, you are probably preparing for a dagger where it hurts.
But who knows? Bill Self could become just the 16th guy in the college game to win multiple national titles. Kansas could do what the 1952 and Self’s 2008 team did and win it all.
Very un-Kansas-like, they’ve even won it when they weren’t supposed to. I happened to be there hanging around in Kemper Arena in Kansas City in 1988 when “Danny Manning and the Miracles,” a 6-seed, upset No.1 Oklahoma, 34-3 and winners of 21 of its last 22 games, 83-79. The game was tied 50-50 at the half, the small (for a Final Four) arena was an explosion of cheers and colors and gasps and drama, and the whole thing was more fun than a little bit.
And maybe the same will be true this weekend. Maybe. With Kansas being a favorite over Villanova in the Saturday semis, that’s a step in the right direction.
Except … remember we mentioned 2016 and 2018? Kansas played Villanova in the tournament both those years. And lost. First, in 2016 when the Jayhawks were the top-seeded team in the tournament.
And then in 2018, when Kansas lost to the underdog Wildcats … in the semifinals.