Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Final Four 2022: Kansas motivated by ‘heartbreak’ of having No. 1 team when 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled

When COVID-19 emerged onto the scene in early 2020, everyone had more to worry about than a busted college basketball postseason. But two years after the pandemic arrived and expedited the end of the 2019-20 season and the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament, there is some reflection to be done on that time for Kansas as the Jayhawks prepare to play Villanova in the Final Four on Saturday.

“It’s definitely a heartbreak feeling knowing that we clawed our way to the top that year,” Kansas center David McCormack said after his team’s Elite Eight win over Miami on Sunday. “We had a lot of great pieces and felt like we could go really far in the tournament. Now this year feels like we’re avenging that year.”

When conference tournaments and the NCAA Tournament were canceled in 2020, the stoppage came amid a 16-game winning streak for Kansas, which was ranked No. 1 and emerging as a clear favorite to win the national championship. After finishing with 63 of the 65 possible first-place votes in the final AP Top 25 poll, Kansas could have claimed a national title. If anyone was going to raise a banner from the season, Kansas had the best case.

The Jayhawks’ brass resisted that temptation. The school’s 1952, 1988 and 2008 champions were the last teams standing at the end of a single-elimination tournament, and the 2020 team’s claim to a title would have been weak by comparison. Claiming such a title would also have made the Jayhawks a target of national ridicule. 

After all, the chances of any one team surviving six games in a single-elimination tournament — even one as solid as the 2020 Kansas team — are slim, and other elite teams from that season like Gonzaga, Dayton and San Diego State were also robbed of the opportunity to compete for a national title.

Because Kansas did not try and claim a national championship in 2020, it now gets to use the ending to that season as motivation while getting ready to face a Villanova program that was one of only three to hand Kansas a loss in the 2019-20 season.

“Now that we have the opportunity, we’re going to make the most of it and just continue to grow as a team with each game,” McCormack said. “And just do what we weren’t able to do or didn’t have an opportunity to do within that 2020 year.”

McCormack, Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun were each role players behind now-departed stars Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike on the 2019-20 team, and Jalen Wilson was redshirting. Now, Agbaji, Braun, McCormack and Wilson are Kansas’ four leading scorers. Walk-ons Chris Teahan and Michael Jankovich were also part of that 2020 team.

“We all knew we were a pretty good team that year,” Braun said. “We were No. 1 for a long time. For it to get canceled like that kind of sucked for a while.”

Last season, Kansas got smacked in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, losing 85-51 to USC as a No. 3 seed, and Braun said that loss “didn’t feel good for us either.” 

The 2021 NCAA Tournament performance marked KU’s worst-ever loss in the program’s long NCAA Tournament history. It also showcased how the Jayhawks got a tough draw. USC caught fire as a No. 7 seed and reached the Elite Eight.

This time around, there has been nothing particularly tough about Kansas’ draw. The Jayhawks played No. 16 seed Texas Southern in the first round, an injury-depleted Creighton team in the second round, then got a poorly-rated Providence team in the Sweet 16 before enjoying the rare privilege of playing a double-digit seed in the Elite Eight in No. 10 seed Miami.

But perhaps the Jayhawks were due some good karma for how things ended in 2020.

“I felt like in ’20, that was the best team in the country,” Kansas coach Bill Self said, while also acknowledging he hasn’t necessarily felt that way about his current squad.

In college basketball, it’s about who is left standing at the end, though, and if these Jayhawks win it all, it would be the perfect tribute to the 2020 team that was robbed of the chance to try.

That Kansas team lost three games all season. They were against Baylor, Villanova and Duke.

Kansas has already beaten Baylor this season, and if it’s going to finish what the 2020 team started, it will have to go through Villanova and possibly Duke to do it.

“This year’s team is different, totally,” Self said. “But I do think that this year’s team has the same chance to do as well just because they have a strong belief that they can accomplish anything. And it’s been impressive for me to watch them grow in that belief this year.”

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