But it happened. The Kansas Jayhawks have thrilled fans with back to back Final Four appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
This Final Four appearance is 12th in school history, making Kansas one of just five schools to reach the Final Four more than ten times.
Just the Facts
The journey was not easy. The Jayhawks had lost Drew Gooden to the NBA and sharp shooter Jeff Boschee to senior night. Kansas was still heralded as having “the best starting five in the nation.” They began the season ranked #2 before losses to unranked North Carolina and #7 Florida in the preseason NIT. A loss to Oregon and an unparalleled 3-3 start bumped the ‘Hawks down to #20 before a slow but steady climb back up the rankings. Midway through the season Roy Williams celebrated his 400th win in 15 seasons. Kansas ended the season ranked #4 prior to a loss to Missouri in the Big 12 Tournament.
Kansas completed their regular season 14-2 in the Big 12, winning the conference title for the ninth time under Roy Williams. It was the 47th time the Jayhawks claimed the conference regular season title. The Jayhawks finished 25-7 overall, with four of those losses coming against teams ranked in the top 20. Coach Roy Williams was named Big 12 Coach of the Year by the Associated Press.
The Jayhawks missed on a number one seed for the NCAA tournament though. Kansas was placed in a tough West bracket alongside powerhouses like Arizona, Duke, and Illinois. Further, the team was forced face this challenge without one of their star players.
Starting forward Wayne Simien dislocated his right shoulder in early January and missed eleven games. The injury highlighted the depth issues Coach Roy Williams had spoken about since the preseason. Juco transfer Jeff Graves surprised critics with his inspired, though sometimes foul prone, play. Graves doubled both his scoring and rebounding when called upon to produce. Simien briefly returned to action only to reinjure himself. The McDonalds All American player was forced to sit out the remainder of the season and was unable compete in the NCAA tournament.
The Jayhawks were led by seniors Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich. The first team All American Collison led the team in scoring, followed closely by Hinrich and sophomore sensation Keith Langford. PG Aaron Miles was ranked 10th in the nation in assists with 6.5 per contest. Michael Lee provided an offensive jolt and was first off the bench. Bryant Nash and true freshman Moulaye Niang provided valuable minutes.
Kansas entered the NCAA tournament third in the country in scoring with 82.8 points per game. KU ranked first in nation in scoring margin at +16.5 and was shooting 49.2 percent from the floor. The ‘Hawks were shooting over 34% from three point range and almost 70% from the line. Bench scoring was down from the previous year, but Kansas averaged three players with more than 15 points per game.
Due to lack of depth and ongoing foul troubles, Kansas was playing more zone than traditionally seen from the team. The team ranked second in the country by out-rebounding opponents by an average of 7.9 boards per game. Kansas was ranked eighth in the nation in assists with 17.2 per game and averaged 5.1 blocks and 10.2 steals per game. Kansas entered the NCAA tournament as a #2 seed having won 12 of their last 14 games. Kansas' defense allowed 66.3 points per game on just over 40% percent shooting.
With the opening victory over Utah State, Roy Williams made his 14th appearance in the NCAA Tournament as a head coach. Among active streaks, KU’s 14 consecutive appearances ranked third and the ‘Hawks 32 total appearances ties for fourth. Only North Carolina, UCLA, and Kentucky have had more trips to the Big Dance.
Kansas boasts an all-time tournament record of 69-31 with those 69 wins ranking fifth in the nation. The 'Hawks will play their 101st NCAA Tournament game on Saturday in New Orleans. That record ranks fifth all-time in NCAA history.
The season is not a rags to riches story. This is not quite a fairy tale, but more an illustration of the rich getting richer. Still, it is a story of overcoming obstacles and managing set backs. It is a story of determination, hard work, and the big pay off.
It is a story Kansas fans don’t want to end.