NEW ORLEANS — For two season Kansas couldn’t quite live up to expectations.
The Jayhawks suffered startling upset losses to ninth-seeded Northern Iowa in 2010 and 11th-seeded VCU in 2011.
Northern Iowa’s Ali Farokhmanesh and VCU’s Shaka Smart rose from obscurity at expense of Kansas’s pain. Each man tore into the Jayhawks’ collective heart. But like any muscle that has been broken down, that heart has grown stronger in the year since.
“We had fire, and we wanted to be at the Final Four this year so bad,” senior guard Jordan Juenemann said. “Those losses really did that to us.”
That fire earned them a No. 2 seed in 2012, which they parlayed into a spot in the Final Four in New Orleans. To a man, the seven players who felt the sting of unexpected defeat March for two consecutive years said the losses were a necessary evil. Kansas understands that no matter seed or expectation a season can be snuffed out on any night.
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Having shared despair, the Jayhawks say that bonds on this team are far stronger than they were when they walked off courts in San Antonio and Oklahoma City with flushed faces and vacant stares.
“I think we’re more together than the teams from the past couple of years,” guard Travis Releford said. “It’s a different team now. To be a great team we had to come together and be one.”
Before Kansas came together, they fell apart. The Jayhawks’ recent plight began in the waning moments of the 2010 second-round contest against Northern Iowa. With 35 seconds remaining in the second half, 29 seconds on the shot clock and a one-point lead, UNI guard Ali Farokhmanesh made the best bad decision of his life.
Rather than wait for the inevitable foul, Farokhmanesh sought to crush the Jayhawks’ will in an instant. Untouched by iron, the 3-pointer whisked through the white nylon. Minutes later, UNI center Jordan Eglseder proudly popped his royal-purple jersey away from his chest and screamed towards the small, elated contingent who had followed the team to Oklahoma City. Many in the larger Kansas crowd stared in silence, hands over their mouths, eyes dim.
The Kansas players were overwhelmed with dejection, as if a bomb had just detonated behind their bench. Some meandered off the court; some bent at the waist and stared at their shoes and others fell to their knees.
A year later, VCU connected on 12 3-pointers and the Jayhawks missed 19. They lost by 10 to Smart and his unheralded, upstart squad. In consecutive years, Kansas had underestimated their competitors and paid dearly.
“You’ve got to respect your opponent, and maybe we didn’t do that the last couple of years,” guard Conner Teahan said.
Heartbreak and triumph are nothing new for the Jayhawks — the saga leading to this year’s run to the Final Four mirrors recent history. In 2005, Kansas was stunned by 14-seed Bucknell in the first round and repeated the subpar effort in 2006, suffering a four-point loss to 13-seed Bradley.
But two years later, many of those same Jayhawks were standing atop ladders with scissors in hand, after an overtime win against Memphis in the national championship game.
“Coach Self always swore by the fact that we wouldn’t have won the national championship if those losses hadn’t occurred,” Teahan said. “So I think [2010 and 2011] have definitely helped us.”
On Saturday, 742 days after Farokhmanesh’s shot fell in Oklahoma City, the Jayhawks will face Ohio State in the semifinals. Should they defeat the Buckeyes and the winner of the other semifinal game between Louisville and Kentucky, much of the credit will be due to the unity born from those two heartbreaking nights in March.
“I think all good teams like each other, but this team takes it to another level,” Self said. “They love each other and they trust each other. It’s been something special to be around.”