How this year’s Jayhawks stack up to the 3 other Final Four teams Bill Self has put together in his 19 years at Kansas
Later this week, Kansas basketball coach Bill Self will be taking his fourth KU team to the Final Four, where he will look to improve on his 2-1 record at the national semifinals.
The lone remaining top seed in the tourney, Kansas will take on No. 2 seed Villanova at 5:09 p.m. Saturday at the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans. A win there would put the Jayhawks in Monday night’s national championship game, where they would face the winner of Saturday’s other national semifinal game between Duke and North Carolina.
The outcome of either of those games would go a long way in defining where this team ranks on the list of Self’s all-time greats and how it stacks up against the three other teams Self brought this far in the past.
For now, though, let’s take a look at how they compare going into the final weekend of the college basketball season.
Let’s start with the 2008 national champs. That team featured a bunch of players who would go on to play professionally and lots of talent at all five positions. Even if today’s Jayhawks win the title, I’m not sure they’ll ever be ranked above that bunch.
The 2012 and 2018 teams, meanwhile, each had one or two clear leaders surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast.
Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor were the heart and soul of the 2012 team and did everything together. That, without question, was their team. Along with sidekicks like Jeff Withey, Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford, Kevin Young and Conner Teahan, they led the Jayhawks on a wild ride through the tournament, coming back and surviving time and time again before coming up just short in the title game against a talented Kentucky team in New Orleans.
In 2018, Devonte’ Graham was the star of the show in terms of talent, role and personality. His teammates played off of him well, advancing to the Final Four with an epic Elite Eight win over Duke.
Those were three great teams, and they each had one or two dominant personalities — players who knew they were the leader of the team and went out and showed it on a regular basis.
This team’s leaders aren’t quite as boisterous about it. And there are more of them.
Like Robinson in 2012 and Graham in 2018, this group has a first-team All-American: senior guard Ochai Agbaji. But Agbaji isn’t as dominant a force on this team as those two KU legends were on theirs.
Know why? Because this team doesn’t need him to be.
This group is where it is today in large part because of Agbaji, but also because the players are all willing to share the load of leadership.
When talking last weekend about super-senior transfer Remy Martin and his willingness and ability to lead by example, KU sophomore Jalen Wilson said something that perfectly sums up what this team is about.
“We all follow each other,” Wilson said. “No one’s afraid to lead. No one’s afraid to listen.”
Experience often dictates who steps into the leadership roles on any team. And that’s in play with this group, too. Mitch Lightfoot, Ochai Agbaji and even walk-on Chris Teahan all have been leaders for KU, regardless of their roles.
But this squad does not have a superstar who is cut from the same cloth as Robinson or Graham. It is not a team of tiers nor is it made up of players who believe there is any kind of limit on what they can contribute on any given night or even a given possession.
Agbaji’s consistency has been off the charts. Self said Sunday that the Kansas City, Missouri, native had “carried us all year long.”
But he did it in a way that left room for others to share the spotlight. That approach was critical in helping Martin find his role when he was finally healthy again. But it also allowed Christian Braun, David McCormack, Jalen Wilson and even Dajuan Harris Jr. to shine on certain nights and certain plays.
This is not a team in which you would rank the order of importance of its players with a guy in first, a guy in second, another in third and so on down the line. This is a team that has Agbaji as the primary option and a bunch of guys behind him as 1A, 1B, 1C and more.
They’re close. They love each other. They’ve fought for each other and for their coach. And that’s what made Sunday’s celebration so special.
Hats and shirts have been handed out plenty of times at Kansas over the years. But this was a group — parents and family members included — that had to be thrown out of the United Center because their celebration lingered so long.
That kind of bond, from top to bottom and devoid of cliques, is rare most years. And, with the rise of the transfer portal, it may be on the verge of becoming extinct.
This team has it, though. It’s why they’re still standing. And it’s why they’ll head to New Orleans believing they’re the team to beat.