There were plenty of flashy picks for college basketball fans to choose from when filling out their brackets. Duke in Coach K's final season, Arizona's deep roster, Kentucky and Auburn's young talent, UCLA's experience, and Gonzaga, yet again searching for their first national title.
In the end, the team few outside of Lawrence paid attention to ended up shocking the world.
This was not a traditional shock; Kansas was a #1 seed after all. Yet, in a year defined by its chaos, seeing a stable, cohesive group go all the way was perhaps the biggest surprise of the tournament. However, for this 'boring' blue-blood, their play for most of March Madness wasn't too far off from what they showed all season: dominance.
The Road to the Final Four
Kansas' win certainly wasn't a fluke, but their weak region was a boost early in the bracket. Similar to Houston last season, the Jayhawks were able to keep distance from inferior teams and push out ahead thanks to their ability to simultaneously put together big runs on offense and play sound defense.
During the tournament, Kansas went on a run of ten or more unanswered points five different times over the course of six games. In some instances, the team's ability to ramp up the energy saved their season. Against #10 Miami, the Jayhawks struggled mightily to generate any kind of offense, trailing 35-29 at halftime. Then, the second half happened. Kansas went on an improbable 47-15 run, practically ensuring victory just ten minutes into the second half. With a collection of talented but somewhat streaky players surrounding Ochai Agbaji, the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, this was a team capable of flipping the 'on switch' at any given moment.
Since the Jayhawks found postseason success in spurts, it's no coincidence that their two toughest games prior to the national championship came against #4 Providence and #7 Creighton. Against both teams, Kansas was unable to go on a double-digit scoring spree, instead seeing their scrappy opponents claw their way back into the game at various moments. In both low-scoring affairs, what allowed Bill Self's squad to sneak through was their shooting; the Jayhawks had the edge in field goal percentage in not just the Creighton/Providence matchups, but every game they played in the tournament.
Catching Up to Carolina
Following a commanding victory over the Justin Moore-less #2 Villanova Wildcats in the Final Four, Kansas was pitted against scorching-hot #8 North Carolina with a championship on the line.
At first, it appeared as if UNC had a decisive edge. Halfway through the first, they took the lead and didn't look back for the rest of the half. The major difference was North Carolina crashing the boards, primarily due to the Herculean efforts of Armando Bacot. However, once again, Kansas' shooting came to the rescue.
Unlike the Tar Heels, who continued to jack up poor attempts from long range (2/12 in the second half from three), Kansas was more deliberate with their shot selection. If a UNC mistake or poor shot led to a fast break, then the Jayhawks would push the floor, often finding a streaking big man like David McCormack or Jalen Wilson. If not, the team would spread out and let their primary ball-handlers, Agbaji and Remy Martin, go to work against UNC's perimeter defense. North Carolina was also forced into plenty of mistakes during the game's more pressure-packed moments; they turned the ball over eight times in the second half, compared to just three times for Kansas.
In a contest where Kansas was out-rebounded by 20, out-shot at the free-throw line, and down 15 after one half of play, it's truly remarkable that they managed to even stay close, let alone win the game. Part of the credit must also go to Bill Self, who pressed all the right buttons and used his personnel tactically, like the veteran head coach he is. On the other hand, Hubert Davis, who has had a phenomenal first year as head coach of the Tar Heels, probably should have called a timeout or two to stem Kansas' second half momentum.
When looking back on an unpredictable March Madness, the tournament winner probably won't be remembered as well as other teams (Go Peacocks!). That shouldn't mean they are forgotten; Kansas controlled the best conference in college basketball all season, survived the opening weekend as other top teams faltered, and used a deep roster to gain an edge in the Final Four. They may not have been a trendy dark horse or historic champion, but the Jayhawks did whatever it took to win, playing smart, cohesive basketball and stunning plenty of fans along the way. In March, when the best are separated from the 67-team rest, that's the difference between agony and glory.