Once again, the Southeastern Conference has gotten the best of the Big 12. No team likes to lose, just like it doesn't start out the season with a goal of finishing second. It's the goal of every team, every year to win and to win a championship - whether it's a division title, a conference crown or a national championship.
On Monday night in a stormy New Orleans, the Kansas Jayhawks, eight-time, regular-season defending champions of the Big 12 Conference, saw their improbable season and miraculous run to the school's fourth national basketball championship ended by a great Kentucky team that lived up to its pre-tournament seeding as the best team in college basketball this season.
Kentucky, the top-ranked team in the country the past three months, built up an 18-point first-half lead over the Jayhawks in the first half of the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship and then held on to survive one of Kansas' patented second-half comebacks for a 67-59 victory, which was closer at the end than the final score indicated.
To Kansas' credit, the Jayhawks never quit. They kept working hard and fighting through adversity and everything Kentucky threw at them. This is the character makeup of this Kansas team, and is a big reason why KU has been able to put together such a successful season despite having less individual talent than most of the other Kansas NCAA Tournament teams. It comes from the collective heart of the team and great personal pride, but it also is a huge reflection of head coach Bill Self and his coaching staff.
Even after finding themselves down by 14 points at the half Self said that he and the Jayhawk players came out of the locker room at halftime believing they were going to win. After all, they had trailed at the half in all but one of their six games in this year's NCAA Tournament. It's probably a good thing that someone didn't bring up the point that Kentucky had won the last 40 games in which the Big Blue of the Bluegrass State had led at halftime.
The Wildcats, who ended the season with an overall record of 38-2, completed dominated the Jayhawks in the first 20 minutes of play, shooting 53 percent from the field while holding Kansas to 33 percent shooting, and building a plus-11 advantage in rebounds at 24-13. As has happened throughout the tournament, Kansas came out a different team in the second half, gradually nicking away at the 14-point Kentucky lead at the break and getting within six points with a little over a minute left in the game.
The Wildcats stretched a 10-point advantage to 16 in a period of 42 second midway through the second half, but Kansas responded to Kentucky's response and cut the Kentucky margin back down to seven with a little under four minutes remaining. Self was very positive at this point. In fact, as Jim Nantz, who called the game on TV for CBS, observed: You could see a little wink in the coach's eye.
You have to imagine that Kentucky coach John Calipari was having some of the same thoughts. After all, when these two coaches met in the national championship game in 2008, Kansas trailed Memphis by nine points with just over two minutes to go before mounting a furious comeback to send the game into overtime, where Kansas pulled out the victory.
"I reminded (our team) of that," Self said, "but we just didn't have the mojo tonight."
No miracle finish this time. Kansas lost the game, and with it the school's hope for a fourth national championship. The Jayhawks' player of the year, Thomas Robinson, felt what all his teammates were feeling after the game and what will probably be his last game for the Jayhawks. "It hurt," the All-American player they call T-Rob said at this locker after the game. "I wanted to win so bad."
"I don't feel that we lost it as much as Kentucky won it," said Self. If you ask Calipari, he will tell you his team won it with defense. The country's best defensive team forced the Jayhawks into at least a dozen missed layups and two missed dunks, and you're not going to win many games when you blow that many point-blank opportunities.
The fact is, the better team won on Monday. What made the championship game so exciting for the No. 2-seeded Jayhawks and their fans was the recognition that the best team owns all the pressure and doesn't always win in big games like this. All that is required to take home the championship is to be the better team on that particular day. In this case, the best team was the better team in game No. 67 of the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
It will hurt for awhile, as it should, but there is absolutely no reason for the Kansas players, coaches or the team's devoted fans to hang their heads because of the loss or harbor a feeling of failure for finishing second. The Jayhawks lost to a very good Kentucky team. And like it or not, Kentucky is a better team than Kansas this season. Greg Anthony, a CBS college basketball analyst described this year's national champions as a "great team with great talent" and not just a collection of great players.
That's not to take anything away from the tremendous 32-win season that this Jayhawk team enjoyed. They frankly exceeded everyone's expectations except perhaps their own.
This was a good but not a great Kansas team. Despite this, they achieved greater success and generated more season-long thrills than some of the best Kansas teams of the past.
Perhaps Self summed up this overachieving Kansas team's season and its success the best: "From start to finish, there's been no team I've been around (that) improved this much," the Kansas coach said. "There's been no team I've been around compete this hard. There's been no team I've been around that was able to take whatever situation is dealt and respond to it favorably."
Well said, coach. And well done, Jayhawks! A good team that produced a great season.
For more news and information about Kansas Jayhawks' basketball and other KU sports, go to the official website of Kansas University athletics.