LAWRENCE, Kan. — In the six years since Kansas last made the Final Four, coach Bill Self has produced eight NBA draft picks. Six were first-round selections, one was national player of the year and another was the No. 1 overall pick.
You could argue all of those teams were more talented than this one.
Yet they all stumbled where this year's team succeeded, falling shy of the final weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The teams led by Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre didn't even survive the first weekend, and last year's group headlined by Frank Mason III and Josh Jackson was bumped in the Elite Eight.Perhaps that is why Self, as fiery as you'll find during a game but relatively composed everywhere else, was so emotional after the Jayhawks beat Duke in overtime to secure their spot in San Antonio.
"Of all the teams we've had," he said during a conference call Monday, "this may be the one I wouldn't expect to do this, and for me to obviously be on these guys pretty hard for things that are shortcomings — basically their personality traits — and to see the reason we won is they 100 percent flipped those, that gives a coach a lot of pride."
Indeed, this group of Jayhawks overcame its share of adversity on the way to winning a record-setting 14th consecutive Big 12 title, the conference tournament and the Midwest Regional.
The first week of the season, Kansas learned that heralded recruit Billy Preston would be unable to play. He ultimately decided to turn pro and head to Europe, never once stepping on the floor for a game that counted.
They lost three games at Allen Fieldhouse, more than they usually do in three seasons combined. They were thumped by Washington and Arizona State in games that revealed their many flaws.
When the Big 12 Tournament rolled around, Udoka Azubuike sprained a ligament in his left knee to render him a 7-foot, 280-pound cheerleader. He barely played in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but has come up big in wins over Seton Hall, Clemson and the Blue Devils.
"It's just a great feeling for us, for the fans, just everything that we've been through this year, all the ups and downs," senior guard Devonte Graham said. "Everything that we've been through, we do it for moments like this. It's just special."
Especially after coming oh-so-close the past two seasons.
The Jayhawks rolled to the regional finals in 2016 before running into red-hot Michigan, which is likewise headed to San Antonio. And last year they romped through their region before losing to Oregon in Kansas City, their home away from home, a defeat that ended the college careers of Mason and Jackson and left a bitter taste.
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That loss was a big reason Graham returned for his senior season. The same for Svi Mykhailiuk, who briefly considered the draft before deciding to come back for one last shot at glory.
Both have been crucial during the NCAAs, but perhaps nobody has risen to the occasion like Malik Newman, the transfer from Mississippi State who dropped 32 points on Duke.
He was expected to do big things coming out of high school, but things didn't pan out with the Bulldogs. So he transferred to Kansas and sat out a year, practicing with the scout team and waiting for his chance, only to spend most of this season with Self roaring into his ears.
He struggled on defense. He wasn't assertive on offense. He settled for poor shots and didn't do enough to take the pressure off Graham, which in turn ruined the offensive flow.But much as the Jayhawks got hot when it mattered, so did Newman. He was voted the MVP of the Big 12 Tournament before keeping his exceptional March going. He scored 28 against Seton Hall, 17 against Clemson and scored all 13 of the Jayhawks' overtime points against the Blue Devils.
"These guys, they've been here plenty of times. And like Coach always said at the beginning of the year, they've been knocking on the door," Newman said. "That's basically what we was playing for, to help these guys get over that hump. I'm just glad that I was able to contribute in a good way to help."
Now, the Jayhawks have their sights set on Villanova, the team that beat them one step shy of the Final Four two years ago. Win that matchup of No. 1 seeds and they'll be back in the title game for the first time since 2012, and on the doorstep of their first title in a decade.
One that happened to have been won in San Antonio.
"This is a team that's gotten hot at the right time. It's a group that's been inconsistent, that had its share of doubters," Self said, "including myself at certain times of the year. But there's no doubt that right now, they're playing their best ball."