Shots inside the paint, shots outside the arc, shots in your arm as a vaccine! We got a shot, folks.
We have a tournament in 2021. A zombified contest that may have a great deal of COVID interference left to play out, but we do have a tournament this spring. The University of Kansas' streak of 31 straight tournament appearances marches on.
When it comes to talking about the NCAA Tournament, looking at the history before the glorious 64/68 team spider web bracket became a reality in 1985 is irrelevant. Sorry, UCLA. Your 10 pre-1985 titles look less impressive when you only had to face regional opponents for three games to win it all. Bill Self is Mr. Elite Eight. If it only took three games, the man would have a drawer full of rings right now. But it doesn't, and the NCAA Tournament is a gauntlet that few teams can navigate successfully. So any title earned 1985 and on is that much more impressive.
Of the 35 tournaments played between 1985 and 2019, only 18 schools have won championships. Of those 18, only eight have won multiple championships. The University of Kansas is one of those eight schools. The only thing that matters during tournament time is giving yourself a chance by getting into the dance.
This '21 tournament is the 36th 64/68 team bracket staged since 1985 (with 2020 canceled). Of those 36 tournaments, Kansas has played in 35 of them. That is insane. Were it not for Larry Brown's shenanigans in 1989, KU would have been in all 36.
Since 1985, Kansas has been a top 4 seed in 31 of their 35 tournament appearances. This year, as a 3-seed, it's the 20th straight season Kansas nailed down a top 4 seed. Not since Roy Williams took an 8-seed armed with freshmen stars Drew Gooden, Nick Collison, and Kirk Hinrich to the 2000 NCAA tournament has Kansas been lower than a 4-seed.
This year, the Jayhawks are a 3-seed. Here's a look at how the Jayhawks have historically performed as a 3-seed in the tournament since 1985:
Kansas was a 3-seed in the inaugural 64 team bracket. The Jayhawks opened the tournament against the 14-seed Ohio Bobcats. In the Round of 64, the Jayhawks and Bobcats put on a high school level scoring showcase as the Jayhawks won 49-38. Calvin Thompson led all Jayhawk scorers with 12 points. Freshman phenom Danny Manning had 9.
In the Round of 32, the Jayhawks faced the 11-seed Auburn Tigers. The Tigers won 66-64. Thompson once again led the score sheet with 21 points. Manning contributed 7.
Kansas was the 3-seed in arguably the most brutal region of the 64 team field. The Southeast Region boasted Nolan Richardson's 31-3 SEC champion Arkansas Razorbacks as the 1-seed, and Bob Knight's 27-4 Big 10 champion Indiana Hoosiers as the 2-seed.
Kansas began its run through this murderer's row of a bracket with another low-scoring mud ball fest against 14-seed New Orleans, winning 55-49. Mike "Mad Dog" Maddox led all Jayhawk scorers with 12 points.
In the Round of 32, Kansas faced the 6-seed Pittsburgh Panthers and took them down 77-66. "Downtown" Terry Brown chucked up 12 threes in this game. He only made four of them but still led all Jayhawks scorers with 22 points.
In the Sweet 16, Kansas met Bob Knight's 2-seed Indiana Hoosiers. Then they proceeded to run the Hoosiers right off the court to the tune of an 83-65 beat down. Brown once again led the way on the score sheet with 23 points and going 4-9 from behind the arc.
In the Elite 8, Kansas met the 1-seed Arkansas juggernaut and Richardson's patented "40 Minutes of Hell" full-court press defense. Kansas found itself down 47-35 at halftime. Coming out of the break, though, the Jayhawks ripped right through the Razorbacks' press, scoring a dizzying 58 second-half points with Alonzo Jamison leading Jayhawk scorers for the game with 26 points.
In the Final Four, Kansas' Roy Williams went up against his mentor and college basketball legend, Dean Smith, and his 1-seed North Carolina Tar Heels. Kansas rode a sensational first-half performance to a lead and then held on through the second half to reach its second National Title game in four years. Four Jayhawks - Adonis Jordan, Mark Randall, Mike Maddox, and Richard Scott - finished the game with double-digit points.
In the National Title game, the 2-seed Duke Blue Devils, after five trips to the Final Four in six years, finally won their first title as Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, and Grant Hill proved too much for this scrappy Jayhawks 3-seed and won 72-65. Jayhawk Center, Mark Randall, had 18 points and 10 rebounds in the game.
The Jayhawks' run through four straight Hall of Fame coaches made this one of the most impressive tournament runs in Kansas history, in my opinion.
Kansas wasn't a 3-seed again until Bill Self's second season as coach in Lawrence. In his first season in 2004, Self almost got the Jayhawks to their third straight Final Four. Kansas was an overtime and a Keith Langford not fouling out from doing just that against Georgia Tech.
The 2005 season began with Kansas' first-ever pre-season number one ranking. The Jayhawks returned senior starters Wayne Simien, Keith Langford, Aaron Miles, sophomore J.R. Giddens, who had a breakout freshman season in 2004, and clutch sixth man senior Mike Lee coming off the bench. Everything started according to plan, with the Jayhawks running out to a 20-1 record. Then it all went horribly wrong.
Kansas went just 3-6 over their last nine games, and after bowing out in the semi-finals of the Big 12 Tournament, there wasn't a lot of optimism about a deep tournament run for the Jayhawks. However, nobody thought the Jayhawks would lose to 14-seed Bucknell in the Round of 64. Since 1985, the Jayhawks have only ever lost in the first round twice. Before 2005, it had never happened. It was unthinkable.
Kansas took a thin lead over the Bison into halftime despite Wayne Simien being the only scoring punch. In the second half, J.R. Giddens, Aaron Miles, and Keith Langford's sleepwalking continued. Mike Lee off the bench was the only player outside of Simien playing with fire. He and Simien had 24 and 18. After trading leads with Bucknell the entire second half, the Bison took a 64-63 lead with 10 seconds to go and then held on for the win.
After all five starters from Kansas 2008 National Championship team either graduated or went on to the NBA, Kansas was expected to take a step back. However, led by junior point guard Sherron Collins, sophomore block party M.C., Cole Aldrich at center, and stud freshmen Tyshawn Taylor and the Morris twins, Kansas won the Big 12 regular-season title. Honestly, had this Jayhawks team not bowed out in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament against Baylor, they probably would have been a 2-seed.
In the tournament, though, they seemed to regain their footing. Against 14-seed North Dakota State in the Round of 64, Sherron Collins exploded for 32 points, and Cole Aldrich added 23 points, 13 boards, and 2 blocks as the Jayhawks won 84-74.
In the Round of 32, Kansas faced 11-seed Dayton. Collins added another 25 points to lead the way, and Aldrich posted the NCAA Tournament's first triple-double since Shaquille O'Neal had one in the early 1990s. Aldrich had 13 points, 20 rebounds, and 10 blocks. The Jayhawks won 60-43.
A troubling trend continued, though. Collins and Aldrich did everything while the rest of the Jayhawks just stood around. In the Sweet 16 against 2-seed Michigan State, Collins had 20, Aldrich had 17, and the Jayhawk defense looked dialed in against the Spartans. KU had control of this game through most of the contest and kept the Spartans at arm's length by about a five-point cushion until the three-minute mark of the second half. Non-stop second-half turnovers and Collins looking gassed at the end did the Jayhawks in, though. Collins played 40 minutes in the game.
I've often wondered about this particular KU team. Collins was playing at a Tournament MOP level. Michigan State went on to finish as National Runners Up in 2009. I think this KU team could have made it to the Final Four and even had a shot at a title defense against the Tar Heels had they won this Sweet 16 matchup that night.
So that's it. Come Saturday will be just the fifth time since 1985 that the Jayhawks have been a 3-seed. It's a tiny sample size, but if you were tallying things up, KU's average tournament run as a 3-seed sits at a Sweet 16 appearance. Two extreme outliers make up that average in a National Runner Up finish in 91 and a First Round flame out in '05.
Getting to the second weekend's Sweet 16 matchup and no further feels about right for this hard-to-read team in this hard-to-measure year of play. I don't expect the Jayhawks to lose to Eastern Washington in the opener. If they lost to USC, Wichita State, or Drake in the Round of 32, I wouldn't be surprised either, though.
CBS Sports currently has the Jayhawks rated as the 8th best team in the field. If this team makes it to the Elite Eight, this year has been a success, given Self getting robbed of a title run last year and turning over his entire roster once again. So anything past the Sweet 16 is just delicious gravy.
Many times what determines a magical March run has as much to do with your team's play as it does the bracket around you imploding on national television. Since most of the teams in the field have only played conference opponents all season, the different styles of play and personnel of teams from across the country that you have a week or a day to scout could lead to tournament anarchy this year.
Or it could be a chalk-lined cakewalk to the Final Four. Who knows? Nobody. And that's what makes me happy this tournament is back on this year.
Here's to all the players and coaches staying healthy. As a fan and an alumnus of the University of Kansas, I say thank you for playing the game.