NEW ORLEANS — For some reason, with his team down by 15 points at halftime of the championship game of the 2022 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, tied for the fourth-largest halftime deficit ever, Kansas senior forward David McCormack was smiling.
It didn’t make any sense.
“I’m like, ‘Why are you smiling, dude?’ Like, we’re down 15,” junior guard Christian Braun said later, "and he’s telling me, like, ‘Keep your head up. Keep going. We’ll be alright, we’ve been here before.’
“And I’m like, ‘Man, I don’t know if I’ve ever been here before. Down 15 in a national championship game? I’ve definitely never been there.”
Only one team in the history of the sport has ever been there, down by 15 points in the national championship game, and come out victorious. That was the 1963 Loyola Chicago squad that turned a 45-30 deficit against Cincinnati into a 60-58 victory in overtime. Kansas coach Bill Self was four days from turning four months old. It was a feat unprecedented in the modern era of the sport — that is, unprecedented until Kansas’ 47-point second half Monday night, which was capped off by McCormack scoring the game’s final four points in the top-seeded Jayhawks’ 72-69 victory over the eighth-seeded Tar Heels.
There’s a reason the 83.3-percent chance of victory that North Carolina held at halftime, according to kenpom.com, felt like it might as well have been rounded up even higher as the Tar Heels ran to the locker room for intermission. North Carolina, a team that famously didn’t make a single second-half substitution in its March 5 road win at Duke and which only ranked ahead of 10 Division I teams in terms of bench minutes this season, was in such a good position at halftime that its players were singing the praises of sixth man Puff Johnson — a sophomore averaging 2.8 points per game, as they ran out of public view.
“I like you, booooy.”
Johnson’s offensive rebound and putback before the halftime buzzer sounded gave the Tar Heels the 15-point halftime advantage that will now go down in infamy. Meanwhile, the soon-smiling McCormack was soon telling Braun and his Kansas teammates, “Just believe in yourself, have fun with it. It’s our last game, regardless.”
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To play in their last game and to know beforehand that it was their last game wasn’t a luxury the Jayhawks had two seasons ago. Granted, few, if any, teams did.
But those teams also weren’t Kansas.
On March 11, 2020, the team’s official Twitter account shared a graphic that listed all of the polls and rankings and metrics where the Jayhawks were ranked No. 1.
NET. Strength of schedule. ESPN BPI. KPI. KenPom. Sagarin.
Stats for 💭 pic.twitter.com/p1pzrboW9P— Kansas Men’s Basketball (@KUHoops) March 11, 2020
Two days later, McCormack, wearing his Kansas uniform, had just finished getting taped up and he was sitting in one of the many rooms that become makeshift, temporary, transitory homes for college basketball players this time of year. “We found out it was like, 'Oh, maybe there's not going to be fans,' 'Maybe we're not going to go,' and then we just hit, 'The tournament's canceled,’” McCormack said before Saturday’s national semifinals. “We didn't know what to do.”
“We ended up just taking pictures downstairs in uniforms and I'll never forget that."
Somehow, through the pain, the shock, the abruptness of it all, McCormack is smiling in the pictures. "Saddest picture day ever," McCormack said. "Mind you, I smiled because (teammate) Mitch (Lightfoot) was in the background but yeah, it was the saddest picture day ever. I mean, we didn't know what else to do. We at least want to remember this moment. We felt like we were on top of the world. I think we were No. 1 across all polls. We were just like, 'We want to remember this moment for what it's worth.’"
If McCormack could muster a smile in the face of a worldwide pandemic erasing his team’s shot at a national championship, then it’s no surprise he could smile Monday night as Kansas stared down a 15-point deficit with 20 minutes left on the clock. After all, he was now playing in the national championship.
As far as we know, the group shots from the “saddest picture day ever” were never posted online or on social media, but we know they exist because that moment, those moments, are forever etched into McCormack’s mind. On Sunday, one Kansas official initially dismissed the notion that such pictures exist, suggesting no cameras were present.
Maybe it was because so much has happened in the last 24 and a half months — forget basketball, but in life; the reason why masks were still responsible for muffling questions asked in press conferences in New Orleans, some 25 months after March 2020 — that how could such a fleeting, inconsequential memory of a team photoshoot be stored for that long?
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When reassured that No, these pictures do exist, the Kansas official promised to look for them but offered a warning — “I wouldn’t hold my breath” — that was perhaps fitting of a program that needs to see it before believing it.
Kansas’ 2020 — a number that was once only associated with an optometrist’s ideal vision or the clarity of hindsight — ended on a 16-game winning streak but without any postseason hardware to show for it.
This is the program that just finished its 15th NCAA tournament appearance as a No. 1 seed, second only to the 17 of the North Carolina program it just beat, but this is also the Kansas program that just made its 10th appearance in the national finals but that before Monday night, had only three championships to show for it.
The qualifier of “only” is appropriate when in attendance at the 2022 NCAA Men’s Final Four are Tobacco Road towers North Carolina (six championships) and Duke (five) which met on the opposite side of the bracket and managed to turn a date between Kansas and Villanova into something of an afterthought, an undercard, a freebie thrown into the Saturday night ticket that gave you access to now-former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 1,570th and final game.
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Kansas shoulda, woulda, coulda arrived in New Orleans with four national championship trophies in its vault, not three. That’s because those pictures that are painfully cemented in McCormack’s mind, but somehow not the Internet, are bound to feature 7-footer Udoka Azubuike, who was the Big 12’s Player of the Year, the National Association of Basketball Coaches’ (NABC) Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team All-American in the eyes of both the NABC and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA).
Those pictures surely feature the offensive and defensive backcourt yin and yang of Devon Dotson, a consensus second-team All-American who averaged a team-best 18.1 points per game that season, and Marcus Garrett, who was named the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year as well as the Big 12’s top defender.
“It was crazy. That was the last time that group was all together,” sixth-year senior forward Mitch Lightfoot said Sunday. “Nightmare …,” Dotson tweeted March 12, 2020.
Kansas didn't have Azuibuike or Dotson or Garrett, but it did have the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, Ochai Agbaji, who scored the game's first points on a rhythm 3-pointer, picking up where he left off against Villanova, an opponent that saw Agbaji make a Final Four record six of seven 3-pointers. And Kansas had McCormack, who muscled through Bacot and Brady Manek for the go-ahead put-back, and finished a short jumper over Manek for some additional insurance, 72-69. "If I really had a Most Outstanding Player throughout the entire Final Four it would be David," Agbaji said.
“To me Devon was here tonight,” Kansas coach Bill Self said Monday night. “Doke couldn’t be here, Marcus couldn’t be here and Isaiah (Moss) couldn’t be here. But to me this was partially won for them too. I don’t know how you guys feel. It’s partially won for them because I always thought the 2020 team was better, more equipped to do well in the NCAA tournament.”
Jalen Wilson, sitting one seat to Self’s left at the postgame press conference, fresh off of tying McCormack for the team lead with 15 points against North Carolina, gave a toothless smirk while staring into the abyss, soaking it all in, as his coach complimented another Kansas team, one where Wilson was forced to redshirt after breaking his ankle in his second game.
But Self wasn’t done with the thought.
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“After the way these guys played the last month,” Self continued, “I think this team can play with any team Kansas has ever put on the floor.”
At that point, Wilson looked to his left and locked eyes with Lightfoot, as the teammates silently sat wide-eyed at the praise. Wilson and Lightfoot, like each of the seven Kansas players who sat at the dais, had a piece of the net from the Caesars Superdome tied around the adjustable strap of the black national championship hats they’d been given.
But it was McCormack who wore the net — a big prize for a big man, all 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds of him. He was the man whose Monday night matchup was North Carolina’s Armando Bacot, the first-ever player with six double-doubles in a single NCAA tournament. McCormack posted a double-double of his own, with the game’s final four points giving him 15 in total and his offensive board that set up the game-winning points marking his 10th rebound of the game.
After McCormack cut off his own strand of the net, he held it high above his head in his right hand, turning to the section of fans behind the Kansas team bench. He then switched sides, looking left and holding the net in his left hand. He kissed it and wafted it to the sky, like a chef would after cooking up a masterpiece in the kitchen, perhaps the culinary version of 15 and 10 in the national championship game.
The game clock above him read “00.0,” the season of Kansas and every other college basketball team now officially over.
We’ll never know if Kansas, as the presumptive No. 1 overall seed in 2020, would’ve won the NCAA tournament. And we may never know exactly what the pictures look like from the final moments of Kansas’ season, a moment that McCormack called the “saddest picture day ever.”
But Kansas did both on Monday night. It won its fourth national championship, tied with UConn for the sixth-most all-time, and its players preserved the moment forever in time with pictures — the backward-hat selfie that Braun took on the makeshift podium at midcourt with teammate K.J. Adams to his left and Self to his right, to the pictures of super-senior walk-on Chris Teahan being the first Kansas player to claim his memento by stepping from hardwood to metal in order to take metal to nylon, to the Snapchat video from the locker room that Agbaji was still captioning as he rolled backward on a golf cart to the postgame press conference, with the national championship trophy nestled in his lap.
We don’t need any proof or reassurances that any of this happened. We saw it with our own eyes.
And through it all, David McCormack was smiling.