And just like that...
It was over - Kansas' run, and all of its fans, alumni and students' interest in the NCAA Tournament.
Two weeks ago we were all penciling in brackets like Will Hunting feverishly deciphering mathematical equations. We were ready to fake being sick to miss work, to watch every game, every minute. It consumed our waking minds. We convinced ourselves that we knew inside information on some school we never heard of. We cared too much about other school's victories, running around and talking trash on workmates, because such unexpected victories gave us a leg up for some meaningless bracket pool.
But every single time our respective schools go down it's like we all wake up from this state of Madness and decide to move on with our lives. It really is that quick. Because of this fact I've always dreaded Kansas playing on that first day of the tournament, Thursday morning around 11:15 a.m. If Kansas were to fall there, then the entirety of the tournament would be ruined for me.
With Bill Self as Kansas coach, it's a very good bet the Jayhawks will reach the second weekend more often than not. But the Elite Eight continues to own Self's teams. The man is 2-7 for the round now. And last night was the worst showing by his team in that round since losing by double digits to VCU in 2011.
That's the NCAA Tournament though. It gives and it takes. You only get one shot, one night. That stark and immediate result makes 40 minutes of basketball seem like it passes in the blink of an eye. And then it's over.
It's the reason that since the field expanded to 64 teams it's so hard for there to be repeat champions. It's the reason there was a gap of 31, 27, 20, and 14 years between titles for Villanova, Louisville, Kansas and Kentucky, respectively.
At a basketball crazy school like Kansas it's also hard, because with each tournament loss we usually have to say goodbye to so many kids we've grown to love cheering our guts out for over the years. Last night was Landen Lucas' last game. It was Josh Jackson's last game, and he didn't even really get a chance to get going in it. It may have been Devonte' Graham's last game. The kid has the size and shooting touch to earn a spot in the NBA. But more sad than any of those departures is the fact that last night was the last time Kansas fans will get to see Frank Mason III ballin' his heart out for the school.
Kansas was lucky to be down by just 11 at halftime. Mason's 17 points were more than half the team's output at that mark. In the second half he looked spent. He needed the rest of the team. They just didn't come through. After watching this team battle all season long, Kansas fans finally saw a game Mason couldn't will into a victory.
Mason's season was amazing. The kid had been a good player for the team as a freshman through junior, but if someone told me they knew his senior season would be one of the best a point guard at Kansas has ever played, I would have called them a liar. I can't remember anyone averaging 20 points a game, because they literally score 20 points every, single time they step onto the court. Usually a 20 point average will have a few 30 point nights balanced out by a few off nights where they only give a team 10 or so.
Frank's consistency paced this team. He allowed it to flash greatness from time to time. It was enough for Mason to have earned a spot for his name and #0 to hang in the rafters of the Fieldhouse. Had he led these Jayhawks to a National Title and brought that trophy home, you seriously would have had to consider putting him in the school's all-time starting five beside Wilt, Danny, Clyde, and JoJo. He was that good this year. I wasn't ready to see him leave. For me that's the hardest part of last night's loss.
But you can't change what happened. You can't disrespect Oregon for the game they played. It was their night. Self's critics will feast on this latest shortcoming. He keeps getting Kansas right there. He's right there so painfully often. In the grand scheme of life and the world, the events of 2016 and early 2017 remind us that we shouldn't care as much as we do about sports. But we do. And of the 2017 NCAA Tournament we did, until that final buzzer in Kansas City sounded the end of our school's run.
Watching North Carolina or Kentucky make another Final Four? No thanks. Think I'll take a long walk before dinner and tune into The Walking Dead instead.
For Kansas fans we're starting to feel like Atlanta Braves or Brooklyn Dodgers fans of days gone by. We won a title during an historically impressive stretch, but with a lot of painful losses around it. And just like what became the mantra of the Dodgers back in the 40s and 50s all we're left to say is, "Wait 'till next year."
For 28 straight years, and 32 times in the last 33 tournaments, Kansas has been in the dance. Most of those years they've gone deep. So we at least have the luxury of knowing the school will, in fact, be back. There will be new faces and names to cheer on. New victories to immortalize. New frustrations to bemoan.
This one stings a little bit more than the others, at least for now. But please don't let this year's premature tournament end get you too down, Kansas fans. Take it from this life long Kansas City Chiefs fan. At least Kansas is a perennial title contender. As a Lawrence native and Kansas alumnus I have at least experienced two national championships in my relatively young life. And I fully believe there will be another banner in the Fieldhouse before I go.
But it won't be this year. So for this Kansas fan, there's only one thing left to be said about this year's NCAA Tournament: It's next season already.
So until then, Willie Nelson says it best, "Turn out the lights. The party's over. They say that all good things must end. Call it a night. Until tomorrow, when we start the same old thing again..."