OKLAHOMA CITY -- I took a left out of the triumphant Northern Iowa locker room and saw the saddest sight of the NCAA tournament to date.
Kansas Jayhawks Cole Aldrich and Tyrel Reed were walking down the hallway toward their locker room after doing the post-shocker news conference. Aldrich had his left arm draped over Reed’s shoulders. Reed had his right arm around Aldrich’s waist. Their eyes were on the floor and their mouths were silent.
This was more a case of misery needing company, than loving it. It looked for all the world as though the teammates might sit down and cry if they didn’t have each other to lean on.
“We had a good season,” Reed said. “Just didn’t end the way we wanted it to.”
That is the cruel reality of the Big Dance. The outcome here can completely alter perceptions of an entire season -- for better or worse. And for Kansas, it is immeasurably worse.
Thirty-three wins, all but wasted. All that time ranked No. 1, and the No. 1 overall NCAA seed? Virtually worthless.
And now all those tickets Kansas fans already had bought for the Midwest Regional in St. Louis next week? Almost worthless as well. Good luck getting those sold for decent value.
A shocking upset ending to a Kansas season is not unusual -- no team can match the school’s three second-round defeats as a No. 1 seed. The losses in 1994 to UTEP and ‘98 to Rhode Island -- those were on Roy Williams’ record. This one belongs to Bill Self.
And it marks the third ghastly NCAA upset for Self since he’s been in Lawrence. In 2005, the third-seeded Jayhawks lost in the first round to No. 14 Bucknell, and in ’06 as a No. 4 seed to No. 13 Bradley. This time, Kansas lost to a better team -- but this was a better Jayhawks team, too.
No wonder Self told his staff afterward that this was the toughest loss of his career.
“You operate under duress, you operate under pressures the whole year that a lot of teams don’t operate under because of where we were ranked and the expectations,” Self said. “And to put ourselves in a position that we were in, they don’t come around every year. You got to make the most of those opportunities when you’re granted them. That’s probably what stings the most.”
In the stinging end, KU fans are left to recriminate over a night of poor shooting (just 6-of-23 from 3-point range, with Sherron Collins and Tyshawn Taylor combining to go 0-for-11). And a night of sloppy ball handling (15 turnovers). And a night of questionable strategy.
Knowing that Northern Iowa’s best weapon would be its slow-down tempo, Kansas played directly into the Panthers’ hands for most of the night. Even though UNLV nearly eliminated Northern Iowa on Thursday with full-game pressure defense, the Jayhawks didn’t turn to that option until late in the game and were well behind.
When they did, it worked wonders. UNI handled the pressure atrociously, nearly giving away the game in the final minutes. But it turned out to be too little and way too late.
“We would love to get after them, love to pressure, love to press,” Self said. “But when they were in the bonus at the under-12 timeout (of the first half), it maybe took a little aggressiveness out of us.”
It’s also fair to wonder whether Kansas was lacking some aggressiveness from the opening tip due to overconfidence. Aldrich and Reed both said that wasn’t the case.
“I don’t think we overlooked them at all,” Reed said. “I think we knew what they were capable of. They’re just a great all-around team, play in a tough league, and they’ve got a lot of great players.”
So did this Kansas team. And now its great season has been sullied by a disastrous early exit.