OMAHA, Neb. — How novel in this NCAA tournament. A high seed that didn’t have a piano dropped on its head.
No, the Kansas Jayhawks moved on Friday night — but now they face the ghosts of their own past. They had heard the thuds of falling big names elsewhere. Virginia and Xavier, North Carolina and Arizona, and Cincinnati and Kentucky. Plop, plop, plop. Not for them, and maybe that’s why they rolled up a 20-point lead on Clemson before scuffling to the finish line to win 80-76.“Definitely one of those things,” Devonte’ Graham said of their sense of wariness in this game, to dodge the upset epidemic.
And now, they stand before a most familiar mountain.
They were in the Elite Eight two years ago. Lost to a Villanova team destined to win the national championship.
They were back again last March. Shot 35 percent and got drilled by Oregon.
And now one more time, in the Midwest Regional.
They all understand the mission in the Kansas locker room, and the emptiness of the previous two months of March. To miss the Final Four is tough. To come so close and miss it – twice – is anguish.
From Lagerald Vick. “I try not to think of the last two.”
And Svi Mykhailiuk: “This gives us an opportunity to do the job we couldn’t do the last two years. We’ve got to make it happen.”
And Malik Newman, who led the Jayhawks with 17 points Friday and has raised his game to a new level in recent weeks — a key component in the Jayhawks’ surge. “This is what you come to Kansas for.”
And especially Graham, who still lives with his 0-for-7 against Oregon. “I wanted to get back to this game so badly,” he said after scoring 16 points against Clemson. “I think about it all the time. I just told the guys in the locker room, I’ve been here the last two years, and this year, we’ve gotta get over that hump.”
His coach understands. This is the stage in the bracket that Bill Self has found so vexing.
He has previously led nine teams into a regional championship game – seven with Kansas, one each at Tulsa and Illinois. Seven of those, he lost. In five of the seven defeats, he was coaching the No. 1 seed. Like he is now.
“I think about it all the time,” he said. “Devonte’s not won the last two, but there’s seven that I haven’t when I’ve been the head coach. Certainly it’s etched in the back of my brain.”
Last year only made it worse.
“I can’t speak for our players, but I would think Devonte’ would agree with me. I don’t think tightness was our problem last year. I just don’t think we played very well. We had played almost three perfect games going into that game and pretty much laid an egg against Oregon.”
Graham remembers. “Came out and couldn’t put the ball in the hole," he said.
The Jayhawks will try again with a team that has had to grind its way here, overcoming lost personnel, lack of size, forced to make do with a four-guard lineup. “It just goes against the grain from the teams we’ve had in the past,” Self said. “But these guys have figured it out.”
Especially Newman, who has averaged 21 points the past six games. He had 16 total the two games before that. “My confidence is sky high,” he said. “I’m not really out there thinking anymore.” Plus, Udoka Azubuike, their best big man, has gotten back from injury just in time.
Friday was not easy. Nobody gets anything easy this month. Kansas’ 20-point lead was chopped to four, and the Jayhawks missed gobs of late free throws and had foul trouble. But they found a way, which a lot of other teams of their stature have not.
And so . . . three consecutive Elite Eights. Not many players can say they’ve done that. “It is special,” Graham said. “It’d be even more special if I can get over that hump. This year I just want to make it over.”
“I’m so proud of our team because I think of all the teams we’ve had here, this would be the team everyone would have thought would not be in this game. And so, hey, we’re in this game. We’ve got a legitimate shot to go to San Antonio.
“I told the guys after the game, it’s not a guarantee. You prepare the whole year to play in this game. So I think we’ll play with no what-ifs. I think we’ll let it go. I think we’ll be as loose as we can be. And still, you’ve got to make shots.”
Third time’s the charm? An old, worn cliché. But not at Kansas right now.