NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The Great Kansas Comeback, as it will forever be known in the history books, is about more than just one stifling, scintillating 20-minute stretch of Jayhawks basketball.
The championship KU captured Monday night traced its roots back to 2020, when the Jayhawks were a team that looked very much on track for the program’s fourth national title.
Instead, it was KU’s come-from-behind 72-69 victory over North Carolina on Monday that brought that fourth championship banner back to Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks insisted they’d share it with the 2020 team, too.
“It’s partially won for them,” said coach Bill Self, who has led Kansas to two of its four titles. “Because I always thought the 2020 team was better, more equipped to do well in the NCAA Tournament.”
Led by Devon Dotson and first-round NBA pick Udoka Azubuike, that 2020 team was, in fact, a team built for a championship. It was headed for a top seeding and the odds-on favorite to win it all.
It was a team that never got its chance after the COVID-19 pandemic hit and wiped away the season.
Most of the key players in Monday’s title game — David McCormack (15 points), Ochai Agbaji (12), Christian Braun (12) and Jalen Wilson (15) — were on that team, too. The players who remained formed a poised, veteran group that came into the game with a mind-boggling 973 games of college experience.
If any group was built to not lose its composure when things turned bad, this group might have been it. But, boy, things sure looked bleak for the Jayhawks as the first half wound down.
Led by a dominating inside game by Armando Bacot and an 18-2 advantage in second-chance points, the Tar Heels ran off 16 straight points to take a 16-point lead. Kansas looked stuck in cement.
Self used the long halftime break to calm things down and breathe some fire into his players. He tweaked the defense, getting DaJuan Harris Jr. to apply more pressure early to UNC ballhandler R.J. Davis. Kansas clogged up passing lanes, forced the Tar Heels into rushed shots and boxed out.
That led to more running and more fast-break points (8) and turned a 16-point deficit into a six-point lead with 10 minutes left. When it was over, Kansas held on and completed the biggest comeback in title game history, surpassing Loyola Chicago’s 15-point rally against Cincinnati in 1963.
“With the group of guys as experienced as this and been around and know each other so well, it’s kind of hard to see us get rattled,” said Kansas forward Mitch Lightfoot, who is in his sixth year of college. “Coach had a great message for us, and he challenged us to be better and to have more pride.”
COVID-19 hurt Kansas last season, too. Some players fell ill right as tournament time approached. The Jayhawks went into Indianapolis as a No. 3 seed but left after only two games — the second of those a humbling 34-point blowout loss to USC.
They added Remy Martin, a transfer from Arizona State, but the rest of the group stayed the same. Martin turned into a key sixth man for the Jayhawks. On Monday, he found his shooting touch and scored 11 of his 14 points in the second half.
“They’ve always kept me going, and they always gave me confidence,” said Martin, who struggled with injuries early in the year. “And I couldn’t ask for a better group.”
The other guys, Self said, simply improved as the season went on.
Agbaji adds Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four to his All-America title. McCormack played toe to toe with North Carolina’s double-double machine, Bacot. The Kansas big man backed in to make a bucket for a 70-69 lead with 1:22 left. On the ensuing possession, Bacot hurt his ankle. That opened it up for McCormack to seal the game with another close-range shot, this one over the less-sturdy Carolina defender, Brady Manek.
“Coach called the play and said we’re going to throw it inside and we have trust in you and faith in you to deliver and get us a basket,” McCormack said. “I just prevailed, I made the basket happen. I appreciate them for allowing me to have that opportunity.”
And Kansas appreciates him.
The victory won’t completely erase trouble that could be brewing back in Lawrence. There’s an NCAA investigation hovering over this program, and the potential for serious penalties did not make this Kansas run any easier.
But for now, time to celebrate.
This fourth national title will not have any single player’s name stamped on it, the way the ‘88 championship belongs to Danny Manning and the Miracles or the way ’08 was a product of Mario Chalmers’ late, game-tying 3.
This one, Self insisted, was more of a group effort.
Pretty big group, at that.
This group of Jayhawks wants to share it with Azubuike, who is in the NBA, and Dotson, who was on hand at the Superdome to watch Kansas pull out the win.
“To win when your team had to fight and come back the way they did and show that much grit makes this one off the charts,” Self said.
He was talking about Monday.
He could’ve been talking about the last three seasons as well.