Jayhawks Turn Challenges into Final Four Spot, K-State Fortunes Bode Well for Next Year

Deandre Ayton

I must write this down to truly digest it. The Kansas Jayhawks are going to the Final Four! It will be the 15th time in program history and the first time since 2012. The Jayhawks will face Villanova on Saturday in a national semi-final you can watch on your Cox Communications favorite CBS affiliate.

I just wrote that epic accomplishment down in short sentences, because this season has been far more than remarkable. It has been truly astonishing for anyone who follows it closely or even remotely.

“I called my team soft But there’s nothing soft about them.”

Seriously, I must confess that I’m having a hard time believing it is true. That’s because I was among the group of former KU Letterman who came back to Lawrence for the 120th Anniversary of Jayhawks basketball reunion. I wasn’t really thinking as I sat (or stood) in the South stands that I was watching a Final Four team that day. What I witnessed was Oklahoma State handing Kansas an ugly 84-79 loss in a game that the Jayhawks trailed by 18. That followed home losses to Arizona State and Texas Tech. While trying to stay in good humor, the Jayhawks head coach dropped more than just a few subtle hints at the reunion banquet that night about how disappointed he was in his team.

That this same bunch scratched out an overtime win over Duke 85-81 to win the Midwest Regional is … well, what words in the English Dictionary are appropriate?

Malik Newman scored 32 points, 13 of them in overtime, while nailing the go-ahead three-pointer, and then sealed the victory from the free-throw line. Newman, who transferred from Mississippi State, looked lost in that Oklahoma State loss as well as several other games. And he wasn’t alone. There were flaws aplenty. No way could this Kansas team continue its streak of Big 12 titles.

But they did… Man, did they improve… and they came a long, long way to do it.

When the buzzer sounded in Omaha, Coach Bill Self pumped two fists and started hugging coaches and players. I can’t imagine how heartbreaking Elite Eight losses to Georgia Tech, UCLA, VCU, Villanova and Oregon have been. But, that release of emotion at the end said it all.

“We made a great play down the stretch to tie it up, but we felt good the whole game,” KU coach Bill Self said. “We felt like we got the ball where it needed to go.” “I called my team soft,” Self said. “But there’s nothing soft about them.”

For now, the journey continues, to San Antonio where Kansas last won a national title in 2008. Villanova, Michigan, and Loyola Chicago will join them. The march through the month of March continues for the Jayhawks…… stay tuned.

If you love sports in the state of Kansas like I do, particularly its history, the K-State vs. Loyola-Chicago game may be remembered for who took part in it as much as how it turned out.

The Ramblers Clayton Custer was named the Kansas High School player of the year in the season before K-State’s Dean Wade earned the same honor. That foot injury disappointingly kept Wade, on the bench. His 6-10 frame and 16 points per game average could have made a big difference. Instead, Wade watched with a long list of Kansas natives (Kade Kinnamon from St. John, Pierson McAtee from Manhattan, Patrick Muldoon from Basehor) who are reserves on a Wildcats bench that included senior Mason Schoen, who suited up for the last time as a Wildcat. Schoen was a teammate of both Custer and game superhero Ben Richardson while at Blue Valley Northwest. The Overland Park trio went 25-0 and won the Class 6A State title in their senior season. In fact, you may have watched the game telecast from Wichita on Cox Communications back in 2013! It doesn’t seem that long ago, and I remember my call well.

Richardson, by the way, deserves his own paragraph. (At least) It was Richardson’s four-point play while falling on a fadeaway that put Loyola Chicago on a 13-4 run that ended in a 78-62 victory. His game was indescribably good, and his post-game interview on CBS afterward with Custer was as “homegrown Kansan” as it gets. Richardson was already at the Loyola-Chicago when Custer decided to transfer from Iowa State. Together again, Richardson, who is comfortable operating under the more publicized shadow of his teammate Custer, scored 23 points in being named the South Regional’s most outstanding player.

But this write up should mostly be about K-State. I’m still not sure how Kansas State forced 15 turnovers and outscored Loyola 28-2 in points off turnovers. Given that, how did the Cats lose by 16 points? Think about it, and let me know if you have an answer.

That the Wildcats finished fourth in the Big 12 and were one step away from being one of the four final teams remaining is exciting. The program’s future appears to be intriguing. If neither Wade nor Barry Brown decides to turn pro, the Cats seven top scorers will be back.

K-State collected 25 wins in a season for just the sixth time in school history, while breaking program records for steals (294) and 3-point makes (254) in a season. The Wildcats also dished out 510 assists, only the 10th time in program history a team has surpassed 500. Those are the kind of numbers that good tournament teams are made of.

The after effect of the Elite Eight also includes a renewed acknowledgment of good deeds done for Coach Bruce Weber. He has impressed a fan base that has not always embraced him.

“I’m just so proud of our guys, how hard they’ve worked, how we’ve overcome so much through the year and did some special things,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said.

“It’s really taught us that we can compete with any team and if we play together, we’re a hard team to beat,” Wade said. “That’s what we’re going to take into next year, but we also have to remember that’s it’s not going to magically just happen next year. We have to come in and start working hard as soon as we can. I think it’s just a matter of working hard and we’ll get back here next year if we do what we need to do.”

A formerly nameless squad will have some star power and credibility as it heads to the 2018-19 season. In addition to individual improvement, a boost in the quality of opponents on the schedule could catapult K-State in the right direction. We will see. Meanwhile, with history as our backdrop, Loyola-Chicago is headed to the Final Four for the first time since 1963. K-State will be back next year trying to get there for the first time since 1964.

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