As we're all aware, Bill Self has suffered some terrible tournament losses, mixed in with a couple Final 4s, a handful of Elite 8s, and of course the 2008 title. Today, we're not here to talk about how Self's reputation as a choker is a bit overblown when you stack his tournament resume' up to other coaches; we already did that a couple weeks ago. Today we're just going to wallow in the upset losses, and try and figure out which one was the most devastating. Don't worry, later this summer I'll be going through all the greatest KU tournament games as well. It's part of the healing process. Onward and upward.
I'll be ranking each game in three categories, each on scales of 1-10: 1) The game itself. If KU lost in particularly heartbreaking fashion, that will warrant a higher score than if they were just solidly outplayed the whole way, or if the opposing team didn't even have to play that well in order to beat Kansas. 2) KU's chance to win a championship, or at least go to a Final Four. Losses always hurt more if there is a chance that the Jayhawks can hang a banner, as opposed to years that we should probably be happy with a Sweet 16 or Elite 8 berth. 3) Miscellaneous. Was it a particularly likeable team? Was the roster full of seniors, or was it a team full of youngsters, so looking to the future could soften the blow of an early tournament exit? How terrible was the team Kansas lost to? Was it a solid team that was dangerously under-seeded? Or was it a bad team that KU had no business losing to?
We'll average those scores, and together, we'll come up with a totally mathematical and not at all subjective way to measure the most devastating tournament upsets of the Bill Self era.
7. Wichita State, 2015
Game score: Probably only a 4. There wasn't much drama to this one; after KU built an eight-point lead in the first half, the rest of the game was allllll Shockers. There wasn't even the token second-half run to get everyone's hopes up again. Just a straight domination.
Lost opportunity score: I can't go higher than a 3. Kansas was not a strong 2 seed this year, and with Kentucky looming in their region, KU's chance to go to a Final Four, much less win the title, was pretty low.
Miscellaneous: Here's where this game registers a bit more. Initially, I almost didn't include the Wichita St. loss at all. Really, the main reason this loss hurts so much is because of all the chirping that had been coming from the city to the southwest. But there's no way that the Shockers should have been a 7 seed. Vegas gave them the same odds as Kansas to make the Final Four out of this region, and KU only opened as a 1-point favorite. This barely constitutes an upset. But the fact remains, Kansas was a 2 seed that failed to make the Sweet 16, and now Wichita St. fans have bragging rights for the foreseeable future. This game was a somewhat predictable end to a frustrating season, so this category gets a 7.
Overall score: 4.7
6. Bradley, 2006
Game score: 6. This one was ugly from the start. KU, a 4 seed that started three freshmen and two sophomores, was clearly nervous at the beginning of the game, turning it over seven times in the first six minutes, and forcing Self to use the "In case of excessive turnovers, break glass for Jeff Hawkins" emergency case. The Hawks recovered to take a one-point lead late in the first half, but then Bradley finished the half on an 11-0 run, including a 35-footer at the buzzer for a 10-point lead. And that was pretty much that. KU made their patented "Hey, look at all these turnovers we're forcing, maybe we should have started full-court pressing a long time ago!!" run to make it a ballgame late, but didn't have enough left in the tank, and lost by 4.
Lost opportunity score: As mentioned above, this was a team full of underclassmen. Despite flashes of brilliance, they weren't going anywhere that year. With #1 seed Memphis lurking in the bracket, a Sweet 16 spot was probably going to be about it. I'm only giving this category a 4.
Miscellaneous: One very large pro and one very large con combine to put this score right in the middle with a 5. Pro: The '06 Jayhawks were really talented, but really young. There was a LOT to look forward to in 2006-07, which mitigated the loss a little bit. Con: After never having to suffer through a first-round loss in the entire Roy era, now we have two back-to-back? To a 14 seed and a 13 seed? At this point, there was a lot of hand-wringing going on in Lawrence about this Bill Self guy, and whether or not his hire had been a huge mistake.
Overall score: 5.0
5. Stanford, 2014
Game score: 5. Stanford's length bothered Kansas all game long. KU shot under 33% from the field, Wiggins only scored four points off 1-6 shooting, and players not named Conner Frankamp went 1-9 from beyond the arc. Tarik Black played phenomenally before fouling out with five minutes left; beyond that, every other performance would be called something on the spectrum from "terrible" to "not very good." After all of KU's star power from the entire season, in the last game of the year, the scoring breakdown was Black & Frankamp 30, Everybody Else 27. Pretty much mind-blowing. And oh yeah, Stanford was pretty terrible as well, failing to make a 3-pointer while turning it over 16 times. This game sucked.
Lost opportunity score: Almost impossible to say, so I'll give it a 7. Would Embiid have come back from his back injury the following weekend? Assuming KU survived 11 seed Dayton, how would they have fared against overall #1 seed Florida in the Elite 8? There were times during the year, with Jo-Jo at full strength, when Kansas looked like the best team in the country. And there were times, without him, that they lost rock fights to 10 seeds from the Pac-12 that barely cracked 60 points.
Miscellaneous: This season left a really bad taste in my mouth, for some reasons that I can explain, and for some that I really can't. After that excitement of landing Wiggins, beating Duke in the Champions Classic, and the realization that Embiid was going to be amazing....there just weren't a lot of fun moments for me, personally-- at least compared to other seasons. Knowing that AWIII's transfer was a foregone conclusion, watching how badly Tharpe had regressed, and realizing that we'd be replacing one and dones with more one and dones didn't exactly put a hop in my step. So I'll give this category a 7.
Overall score: 6.3
4. Bucknell, 2005
Game score: Kansas did NOT play well in this one. Wayne Simien was basically the only guy who could do anything against Bucknell's (surprising stat alert!) 10th-ranked defense. Mentally, the Jayhawks just didn't seem all there. The first half was littered with weird mistakes. 5-second calls on inbounds plays, fouling multiple times on three-point shots, etc. After trailing by eight early, KU recovered to take a three point lead into the half. However, they coughed that up immediately, and it was tight the rest of the way. Still, I felt confident down the stretch that Kansas would pull off the victory. When Michael Lee got that steal and the intentional foul call on the ensuing breakaway, down three with a minute left, I thought we were gonna win. When Anonymous White Guy #1 (McNaughton) threw up that garbage shot with ten seconds left, I thought we were gonna win. When Keith Langford was driving to the hoop the possession after that, I thought we were gonna win. When Anonymous White Guy #2 (I don't actually remember this guy's name) missed two free throws with three seconds left, I thought we were gonna win. When we almost perfectly recreated the Grant Hill-to-Christian Laettner bomb down the court to Simien at the buzzer, I was POSITIVE we were gonna win.
And then we didn't.
A truly devastating loss that deserves a 9 out of 10.
Lost opportunity score: If you asked me this in early February of 2005, when the senior-laden Jayhawks were cruising along at 20-1, I would give it a 10. But things changed drastically over the last month of the season. KU had lost 5 of 8 going into the tournament, Langford was a shell of himself due to injuries, and Kansas slipped down to a 3 seed. Also, Christian Moody was starting for this team, so maybe it was naive to believe that they were ever going to advance very far. At the time, I was blinded by the senior class that went Final Four, Championship game, Elite 8 thus far in their careers; but with the advantage of hindsight, I can't give this category higher than a 6.
Miscellaneous: I was 22 years old at the time, and in Indianapolis on Spring Break, where my buddies and I were also attending first and second-round games. After this loss, I got so aggressively drunk that I passed out on a bridge downtown and slept there, like a common hobo, until the next morning. 10 out of 10.
Overall score: 8.3
3. Michigan, 2013
Game score: Absolutely a 10 out of 10, and I sorta want to give it an 11. KU looked like world-beaters (not to mention nut-punchers) for the first 37 minutes. Michigan, who had trailed by 14 with six minutes to go and was playing lifeless basketball, looked dead in the water. Then, quickly and without warning, it all fell apart for KU. After a Jeff Withey dunk gave Kansas a 10-point lead with 2:30 left, let's quickly (and as painlessly as possible) run through what happened next:
- Elijah Johnson turnover, Michigan dunk
- The now infamous EJ 10-second backcourt violation
- Still up eight with under 1:30 left, until a Trey Burke step-back 3
- Ridiculous reverse layup by Glenn Robinson III
- Two free throws from EJ
- Burke layup
- EJ misses front end of 1-and-1
- Burke hits one of the craziest last-second shots I've ever seen-- what's the percentage on that one? 5%? 3%?
Overtime almost felt like a foregone conclusion, even though it was close all the way to the buzzer, when EJ made yet another terrible decision by driving all the way to the basket before throwing the ball BACK outside the 3-point line and forcing Naadir Tharpe to hoist a runner at the buzzer. After the 2012 tournament run, KU had played with fire one too many times.
Lost opportunity score: A tough-to-calculate 8. Remember, KU was losing to 16 seed Western Kentucky at halftime in the opening round, and was losing by nine at halftime to 8 seed North Carolina the next game. After giving no indication that they were at all ready for tournament play, the Hawks looked as good as anyone in the country for the first 37 minutes of this game. So depending on which team decided to show up, you could talk me into Kansas being the team who battled Louisville for the title, or the team who got rolled by Florida in the Elite 8.
Miscellaneous: Probably an 8. Michigan was a really solid team that year. They ended up going all the way to the championship game, and they had at least six NBA players on their roster (depending on your feelings about Caris LeVert). In that sense, this loss didn't hurt so much. Despite losing to a 4 seed as a 1, I don't think there was much shame in that. It just really, really, really sucks that a team that started four likeable seniors, three of them of the 5th-year variety, went out like this. Plus the whole Elijah Johnson thing was terrible. I can't imagine a more ignominious ending to a four-year career than he had. The one silver lining to this abomination of a finish is that it made me appreciate the 2008 championship even more, since we finally got to know how Memphis fans felt that night.
Overall score: 8.7
2. Northern Iowa, 2010
Game score: A painful, painful 10. Kansas led 2-0, then never held the lead again. Jordan Eglseder, that seven-foot tall water buffalo, had made one 3-pointer all year, then decided to cash two of them in the first ten minutes. UNI grabbed an offensive rebound in seemingly every single key spot all game long. They only turned it over nine times, and shot 85% from the line. And yet, AND YET, Kansas had it down to a one-point game with 45 seconds left (thanks to a full-court press that, yet again in a tournament game, perhaps should have been rolled out against an athletically inferior team much earlier than it was). And that's when Ali Farokhmanesh happened. I don't want to talk about it anymore.
Lost opportunity score: 10. Kansas was the overall #1 seed, the Midwest region was weak (not to mention upset-prone-- KU would have faced #6 seed Tennessee in the Elite 8), and it was a down year in college basketball in general. The only truly scary team besides Kansas was Kentucky, and they didn't make the Final Four. Look, I know the tournament is a crapshoot; I can't sit here and tell you that Kansas absolutely would have won a title this year if they make it past this game. But as good as KU was in 2010, and the way the bracket ended up falling...a title was there for the taking.
Miscellaneous: Though it wasn't as bad as the end to EJ's career, this was not the way that Sherron Collins could've imagined going out. 4-15 shooting, 5 turnovers, just 10 points and 4 assists, loss to a #9 seed in the Round of 32. Ugh. Here was a guy that should've gone down as one of the five most beloved Jayhawks ever, but this one game undid a disproportionate amount of the goodwill he had deservedly built up. The NCAA tournament is a fickle, fickle woman. I'm hoping that in the following years, Sherron's legacy will mirror Jacque Vaughn's. Jacque's popularity took a hit after our last memory was of him getting absolutely abused by freshman Mike Bibby in the '97 Arizona loss, but eventually time helped cauterize that wound, and Jacque is now universally remembered fondly.
Also, one of my buddies used to play for Northern Iowa, so I get to hear about this game somewhere between 70-75 times per year. It's so awesome, you guys. 7 out of 10.
Overall score: 9.0
1. VCU, 2011
Game score: 10 out of 10, which ironically is also the clip that it felt like VCU started the game shooting three-pointers at (in reality, it was "ONLY" 9 of 12). This game, more than any other that I can remember, felt like a waking nightmare the whole time. Every KU turnover and VCU made three-ball made it more and more apparent that we weren't going to wake up. It took 16 minutes before a non-Morris twin scored a point for the Hawks. The 14-point halftime deficit was the largest in Kansas' NCAA tournament history. Of course there was the obligatory second-half run to suck everyone in again, but VCU impressively slammed the door once the Jayhawks pulled within two, and ended up cruising to a 10-point win.
In the end, there isn't much to say that wasn't perfectly (if not a bit childishly) summed up by Markieff Morris in the aftermath: "Probably the best game they played ever. Probably the best game ever as a school tonight."
Lost opportunity score: Easily a 10. A two-loss Kansas team with a chip on its shoulder, going up against probably the weakest Final Four in history? If we say that a title was there for the taking in 2010, then in 2011, our waiter strolled over to our table, placed the Title a l'orange in front of us, and happily said "Bon appetit!"
Miscellaneous: I'm going with an 8. We're talking about losing an Elite 8 game to an 11 seed that probably shouldn't have even made the tournament on Selection Sunday. In general, I'm a fairly pessimistic fan come tournament time. I've been burned too many times to talk trash before a game. Twice in my life, and only twice, have I ever been overconfident before a tournament game. Once in 2003, after the curb-stomping of Marquette in the Final Four and I thought Syracuse would be no problem....and the day before the VCU game, after KU gave Richmond the beating of a lifetime, both the 2 and 3 seeds lost in the bottom half of our bracket, and I started telling strangers at the bar that they were invited over to my house later that weekend for a Final Four banner-raising ceremony. Needless to say, I'll never be cocky again in my life.
Overall score: 9.3
Now that we've gone through all that unpleasantness, what does everyone else's list look like? I look forward to having much more fun this summer, when I'm recounting all the best tournament wins from the last 25 years.