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The Day After: An early exit from the NCAA Tournament
It seems fitting that in the hours following KU's 60-57, season-ending loss to Stanford in the round of 32 at the NCAA Tournament in St. Louis, that snow is falling in Lawrence on a rather gray day.
After all, the end of the college basketball season — no matter when it comes — almost always brings a serious stretch of mourning to Kansas fans.
Given the inconsistent nature of this year's team and the fact that they were trying to survive and advance without their most important player — freshman center Joel Embiid — it's not all that surprising that the Jayhawks did not advance to this weekend's games in Memphis. What is surprising, though, is the way they bowed out. I'm still scratching my head and trying to figure out how the Jayhawks lost to Stanford and why they could not use their athleticism, quickness and a faster pace to run past the Cardinal into the Sweet 16.
I'm sure I'm not alone.
With that said, here's the final Day After blog of the 2013-14 season. As you surely know by now, just because basketball season has ended does not mean our coverage of the team will with it. Thanks to Gary Bedore's 24/7/365 dedication along with steady insight and stories from Tom Keegan, Benton Smith and me, you'll be able to find plenty of KU basketball news right here on KUsports.com as you wait for another season to arrive.
Now, onto one more look back at what brought an abrupt end to a wild season.
To me, the most glaring reason the Jayhawks fell to Stanford in the round of 32 was not the Cardinal's size or their experience or even the fact that the Jayhawks missed so many shots at and around the rim. To me, it was the product of the one thing that plagued the Jayhawks — at least at times — all season long. This team was full of nice, team-first guys who wanted others to succeed and did not necessarily have the cut-throat mentality to go out and kick somebody's butt. That's not a knock. I enjoyed this team a lot. It is, however, something that can hurt you in the NCAA Tournament, when other teams are gunning for you with every ounce of their fiber and you need that one guy to step up and carry you through a rough day. Tarik Black certainly tried to be that guy in his final game, and, had he not fouled out, I believe KU would have won. But he did. And Stanford made a few more plays. I'm sure that this was one of those games that KU's players would rather have lost by double digits. Because when you lose by just three after playing and shooting so poorly, it can take a long time to get over that whole, “if only I would've done this or that here or there” mindset. Give credit to Stanford for getting the job done, but that's a team that KU beats seven or eight times out of 10 if they played an extended series and I'm sure that, as much as anything, is what makes this one sting.
Three reasons to smile:
1 – It won't erase the pain of the loss, but you can't help but feel good about the way Tarik Black went out. Black played one of his best games and nearly single-handedly willed the Jayhawks into the Sweet 16. He was strong inside, smooth at the free throw line and tough on defense. As it turned out, the one thing that haunted him all season was his undoing, as the senior transfer fouled out with five and a half minutes to play in the game. Black's time at Kansas, though short, will likely be remembered fondly. Can you imagine what this team would have been without him?
2 – KU's full-court press was fantastic and it nearly stole the Jayhawks this game. Forget for a second about why KU coach Bill Self doesn't press more or didn't start doing it earlier in the season. He did it in this game, it was the right move and it nearly saved the day. Jamari Traylor, Frank Mason and Andrew Wiggins were sensational in the press and it sure sped up the game whenever Kansas used it. Self has his reasons for not using it more often, but if I'm coaching all of that athleticism, depth and talent, I'd definitely make it more of a staple of what I do. Again, though, he pulled it out when Kansas needed it and it almost worked brilliantly. It's important to remember, too, that part of the reason Stanford struggled with it was because they probably had not really seen it and could not prepare for it.
3 – How about a tip of the cap to Conner Frankamp, who played another solid game and gave the Jayhawks a chance. Forget the three-point stroke or the steady job he does with the ball in his hands. For my money, the young man's mental toughness is one of his best attributes. He goes from averaging around 6 minutes a game to being one of the key players relied upon to save the season on the biggest stage in the world and looks like a champ doing it. That finish should be huge for his confidence and development heading into his sophomore season.
Three reasons to sigh:
1 – It's definitely tough to watch Andrew Wiggins go out the way he did, but I think it's wildly unfair if the young man is remembered for his flop in his final game. Wiggins, as you know, scored just four points on 1-of-6 shooting and committed four turnovers in what figures to be his final game as a Jayhawk. It certainly was not the kind of game we've seen from him of late and nothing close to what was expected of him when he signed with KU last May. Just the other night he was pretty quiet overall and still led all scorers with 19 points. Not only were his shots not falling, Wiggins wasn't really looking to take them. He had trouble off the bounce, could not find room to finish over Stanford's front line and looked a little frantic when he had the ball. Tough night and a tough-luck ending for a guy who had a fantastic season and was one of the more pleasant young men to be around.
2 – With all that size out there, you can't help but wonder what Joel Embiid could have done offensively had he been able to play in this one. While Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor struggled to go up and over Stanford's trees and shot just 4-of-18 combined because of it, it's worth imagining how many of those shots would have gone to Embiid had he been able to play. At least half would be my guess. And instead of the 6-foot-8 Ellis or Traylor trying to go into and over guys, the 7-foot Embiid may have been able to go above and drop shots down behind them. We'll never know, of course, because the back injury that kept him out of action from March 2 on made Embiid a non-factor down the stretch.
3 – The round of 32 loss to Stanford marked the fourth time in 11 seasons under Self that KU has lost during the first weekend of the tournament. While he's reached at least the Elite Eight in five of those seven other seasons (and the Sweet 16 in the two others), most fans still have a hard time digesting the early exits. There are very few people out there who would not admit that the KU fan based has been spoiled by an incredible amount of consistency and success and that's probably what makes losses like this so tough for them to take. It's definitely worth noting, though, that this isn't just some kind of KU thing here. All of the other major programs have had their ups and downs, such is the nature of the NCAA Tournament, which may very well be the toughest event to win in all of sports. Heading into this year's tournament, only KU and Florida had been in three straight Sweet 16's. And Self has 26 NCAA Tournament wins in his 11 seasons at Kansas, just eight fewer than Roy Williams had in four more seasons.
One thought for the road:
KU's season-ending loss to 10th-seeded Stanford:
• Ended Kansas’ season at 25-10, giving KU its first double-digit loss season since going 24-10 in 1999-00.
• Made Kansas 11-9 in games away from Allen Fieldhouse (5-6 in true road games, 5-3 on neutral floors).
• Changed the Kansas-Stanford series to 8-3 in favor of Kansas.
• Made the Jayhawks 96-42 all-time in NCAA Tournament games and 8-2 in NCAA Tournament games played in St. Louis.
• Marked KU’s first loss to a No. 10 seed (4-1) and moved its record to 19-6 as a No. 2 seed.
• Made head coach Bill Self’s record to 325-69 while at Kansas and 532-174 overall. Self is now 36-15 all-time in the NCAA Tournament (26-10 at Kansas).
• Moved Kansas to 2,126-822 all-time. With Kansas and North Carolina now out of the NCAA Tournament, only Kentucky remains as a top three program that can still add to its win total this season. Kentucky leads with 2,137 all-time wins. KU is second. North Carolina is still third with 2,114 while Duke (2,027) and Syracuse (1,902) round out the top five.
The countdown to Late Night 2014 is on... (according to a KU spokesperson, no official date has been set yet)