2023 NCAA Tournament Preview: Jayhawks pin postseason hopes on ‘one of the greatest winners in the history of Kansas basketball’
For Kansas forward Jalen Wilson, a second chance born from a surprise development elsewhere wound up benefiting Wilson, the KU basketball program and Kansas coach Bill Self in ways nobody could have imagined.
“I screwed it up in high school,” Self said of recruiting Wilson. “He was a Kansas guy. He was ready to go. At least that’s what we were told. And I didn’t pull the trigger. We went from being maybe right in the lead to now it’s over and he was going to go somewhere else.”
Think about this for a second: If John Beilein stays at Michigan instead of leaving for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Wilson would’ve stuck to his commitment to the Wolverines and KU probably would not have won a national title in 2022.
The Jayhawks also probably would not be on the short list of true contenders heading into this year’s NCAA Tournament, Wilson’s fourth overall, his third as an eligible player and just his second while truly healthy.
“In high school, I thought I was going to be way across the map in Ann Arbor (Michigan),” Wilson said. “But God put me in Lawrence, Kansas and changed my life for the best.”
That change of plans came when Beilein accepted the Cavs’ job. And Self did not let the second chance to land the four-star prospect pass him by.
“Obviously, when coach Beilein left and (Wilson) became available, we got him in here and tried to get it done as quick as possible,” Self recalled.
Like most of the stops in his basketball life, Wilson’s path at Kansas was paved with broken boards.
As a true freshman, Wilson ankle and back injuries cost him the majority of the 2019-20 season. And if that wasn’t enough to keep him out of the tournament — which it would’ve — the pandemic canceled the tournament altogether.
The following year, it was Wilson’s own personal battle with COVID-19 that had him at less than 100% entering the tournament. He missed KU’s first-round win over Eastern Washington and played a rusty eight minutes in a blowout loss to USC in Round 2. He scored just two points, showed obvious signs of fatigue and missed all three shots he attempted.
That’s when it started to turn for Wilson and his teammates, though. And they responded to the disappointment and devastation of the most lopsided NCAA Tournament loss in Kansas basketball history with a run to the national title the very next year.
Wilson, who battled through a suspension and confidence issues early on in the 2021-22 season, played a huge role in delivering Kansas its sixth national title, finishing just a couple of rebounds shy of averaging a double-double for the entire tournament.
His fire, heart and passion were on full display throughout that season, but he took his game and his importance to an entirely new level this season.
Not only did he slide into the role vacated by former KU All-American Ochai Agbaji, but he also did even more on the stat sheet, leading the Jayhawks and the Big 12 Conference in scoring and rebounding.
Not bad for a guy who left for college with visions of leaving after a year.
“I think that’s every kid’s dream (to be) one-and-done,” Wilson said, laughing. “But you’re quickly humbled (about) what college basketball is when you come here. But I wouldn’t change anything.”
In fact, even with the national title memories fresh in his mind and his championship ring prominently displayed in his room for him to see every day, Wilson said recently that he has had even more fun this season.
“This year is the most fun I’ve had,” he said. “Just because I see the potential that we have this year to do it all again. That’s what’s most fun, just the journey. Winning a conference championship is the first step in that process, so we’re right on line with what we need to do to have even more fun in the postseason.”
If the Jayhawks’ 2023 postseason fun is anything close to what they experienced in 2022, there’s little doubt that Wilson will be largely responsible.
But it’s not just the points and rebounds, leadership skills and clutch plays that have allowed him to carry this team. It’s also his pride.
“I really don’t know if we’ve had anybody more competitive,” Self said. “I don’t know if we’ve had anybody with a will to win better than his. He is a stud. Even when he doesn’t perform his best, there is never a question in his will to win being compromised at all. That separates him from just about all of them. There’s an extra element when you talk about making winning plays at game point. And I don’t know that we’ve had anybody do it any better than he has.”
Self doubled-down on that claim while introducing Wilson to the crowd on Senior Night, saying, “There’s not a better player in America, there’s not a tougher player in America, there’s not a player in America who gets more out of his ability than what this guy does. I think he’ll go down as one of the greatest winners in the history of Kansas basketball.”
Few things illustrate that better than Wilson’s favorite moments from his time as a Jayhawk. You might think it came during the national title game or that it was one of his game winners. But they were more subtle than that. At least in the way that you might have missed them if you weren’t paying attention.
“One of my favorite things is when I get an and-one, like screaming and just hearing and feeling that joy and excitement,” he said of the home crowd roaring with approval for his big play. “I kind of just close my eyes a little bit and whenever I open them, wherever I’m at on the court, I’ll just look at whoever I’m in front of and whatever interaction we have will happen. I just like connecting with the fans as much as I can. They get juiced up, too.”
Asked if he ever saw a fan yelling back with as much fire and passion as he sent their way, Wilson smiled and said, “Oh yeah, for sure. They’re matching my energy for sure. That’s why this place is special.”
And to think, he almost never got a chance to experience it.