One obstacle too many spelled the end for the Kansas basketball program on a tough night in Iowa
I’ve covered Kansas basketball for a long time and seen all kinds of teams and outcomes.
But I can’t recall any team that overcame quite as much as the 2022-23 squad, which saw its season come to an end in heartbreaking fashion Saturday night in Des Moines, Iowa.
A damn good Arkansas team delivered the final blow to a team that took punch after punch all season and kept standing.
Having to face the Razorbacks, a legit top-10 team when healthy and clicking, was one of those things that was stacked against the top-seeded Jayhawks, and it wound up costing them.
But it wasn’t the matchup that brought on the end. Sure, the missed free throws, poor late-game execution and a baffling 10-second call determined the final score. But it was the accumulation of having to battle all of those obstacles before those, and the weight of that finally pulling them down, that proved to be too much for the Jayhawks to overcome.
They handled not having head coach Bill Self for the final 10 days of the season like champions. They said all the right things. They kept smiling. They put their trust and faith in assistant coach Norm Roberts and the rest of the KU staff. And they did it all in the most genuine way imaginable.
Perhaps it was because, in the heat of the moment while facing such unexpected circumstances, they weren’t able to realize or fully comprehend just how much they missed Self. But they did. Any team would. Hall of Famer or not, blue blood or otherwise.
This is not a knock on the job Roberts and the staff did. They were terrific. Really. Anyone who says or thinks otherwise probably has set their expectations way too high.
Remember, Norm and company didn’t get any type of warning about this situation either. They were doing their jobs as assistants one day and then the next, just like that, had to band together to keep things going for an unknown period of time.
Throughout that process, they made sure the focus stayed on the players — what they needed, how they responded, how tough they were — and not in any way on themselves.
It wasn’t until Roberts’ second-to-last press conference of the week that a reporter asked him how he was handling all of this. His answer, as expected, was to deflect and put it all back on the culture that Self and company have established at KU.
In addition, as much as they were able to see for themselves that Self was going to be OK, there had to be a real sense of concern for their longtime friend, not just a guy who was their boss. On top of that, it’s only natural for guys Self’s age or older to start thinking about their own health when something so scary hits someone they’re so close to.
I know I did.
This isn’t a plea for you to feel sorry for these guys. You shouldn’t. They managed. And they powered through all of the challenges they faced by capturing their identity from being able to do so.
In the end, after needing to use their second hand to count all of the adversity and tough breaks they faced this season, it was the absence of their leader that finally broke them.
You could see it in their faces and emotions after Saturday’s loss. It’s like that every time a team loses at the NCAA Tournament, of course. But having seen a whole bunch of them and been in that locker room a dozen or so times before, this one looked different.
There was more weight to it. Not only did they lose out on their chance to keep playing or make a title run, and not only were they bummed that they couldn’t keep winning for the KU fan base, but they also were devastated that they couldn’t extend the season so they could get their coach back.
The Jayhawks, players and coaches alike, finally acknowledged after the loss that they had developed a win-for-coach approach, not only for selfish reasons in wanting to get their head coach back but also for Self, who without question had the roughest 10 days of any of them.
Who could have known on March 4 in Austin, Texas, that that would be the last time the Jayhawks would play a game with Self on the sideline this season?
It still doesn’t quite seem real. And for guys like Jalen Wilson, Kevin McCullar Jr. and who knows how many other Jayhawks — freshman guard Gradey Dick included among them — that seems like a pretty sad way to end not only a fantastic season but also your Kansas career.
On the way out the door, Roberts made sure to praise his players one final time.
“Our guys have been terrific all year,” he said. “They fought to the very end, made huge plays. It was tough not having coach here, but, you know, we don’t make any excuses. We have to line up and get it done, and we came up a little bit short today. But these guys have been terrific all year.”
Now, as Kansas basketball moves forward into an uncertain future that’s sure to bring change and new faces into the program — that’s just the way it is in the name, image and likeness and transfer portal era — the focus shifts to putting together the next KU team, one that will carry the same expectations as all of them.
That squad won’t have Wilson, and it might only be returning a handful of the players who were in the locker room on Saturday night. So, it’s far too hard to tell right now just how good next season’s group can be and what a reasonable guess for where they’ll be ranked both in the Big 12 and the national polls when October rolls around.
But no matter who’s a part of it, there will be enough players and coaches on the 2023-24 KU roster who know the standard and have been a big part of setting it.
Regardless of how long it takes him to heal up now, Self should be one of them. And with the combination of his presence, the insanely-high expectations the program always has and enough players who have proven they thrive in that environment, Kansas should be positioned to make another memorable run of some kind a year from now.