By: Chris O’Brien
This is an excerpt from the full ebook now available on Amazon.com
The wound was still fresh.
Yes, the run to the Elite Eight helped. It also helped that Roy Williams only took North Carolina to the Round of 32. Every Kansas fan will admit that felt pretty good to see. And yes, it was exciting to have Bill Self, this young rising star of a coach, only 40-years-old, who had now taken three different universities to the Elite Eight.
We were cautiously optimistic about the future. Whenever we had flashbacks of Roy Williams announcing his departure, we could replay that first Bill Self press conference; the one where he said all the right things.
“Woke up this morning, and I’m driving to the office and I, on purpose, drove up on Naismith Drive. I’ve always thought, ‘How cool would it be to office on Naismith Drive?’ And now it actually gets to happen.”
We needed to hear a coach gush like that over the tradition in Lawrence, Kansas. Needed to hear that we were beautiful again because, for the first time in our iconic basketball history, we had been dumped. Flat out dumped. Roy Williams looked at another university as the better destination. And just like a high schooler going through their very first breakup, this whole thing was unfamiliar to us. Why would you ever leave the Phog?
So, what do you do after you get dumped? Eat a tub of ice cream while watching The Bachelor? Have a bowl of cereal in the shower while openly weeping? Yes to both, but you also go out and act like you’re doing ok. Be the guy who posts shirtless photos on Facebook, or a girl making that bikini photo her new profile pic.
In 2004-2005, we were doing a good job pretending everything was ok. We looked at the roster and said that things couldn’t be better. Especially with Keith Langford, Wayne Simien, Aaron Miles all coming back for their senior seasons. Those guys had already gone to two Final Fours. Wayne had a legitimate shot at National Player of the Year. We had an experienced veteran crew.
Maybe this could be the year…
Plus, Self was already showing promise as an elite recruiter. We added freshmen Darnell Jackson, Sasha Kaun, and Russell Robinson.
How fitting that the team who would start this 14-in-a-row streak began the season 14-0. We–and I want to establish this right away, I’ll be using ‘we’ rather than ‘they.’ Kansas fans understand that we talk about this team as if we’re one of the players. So, WE had a minor hiccup against Villanova followed by a six-game winning streak. Hard to start much better than 20-1.
On February 28th, 2005, the Oklahoma State Cowboys came into Allen Fieldhouse. We were No. 8 in the AP Poll, they were No. 4. Oklahoma State had made the Final Four the year before, barely lost to Georgia Tech. And the Cowboys were loaded, they had a Big Three of their own with Joey Graham, John Lucas III, and JamesOn Curry.
This game was the unofficial Big 12 Championship. Both teams were 10-3 in conference play. And you know how these games can sometimes go, a ton of hype followed by a big letdown. Not the case here. Both teams played their best games of the season. It was lights out shooting; Kansas shot 66 percent, OK State not far behind at 59 percent.
Wayne Simien scored 32 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. He also set the school record for consecutive free throws made in a row at 34. Aaron Miles hit a late-game shot to give the Jayhawks their final lead, 81-79.
It was the type of game where even the losing coach (Eddie Sutton) had nothing but good things to say about his team.
“What a great college basketball game,” Eddie Sutton said. “When both teams play like that, it is a shame that one has to lose.”
Eddie Sutton is a legend, retired with 806 wins, has the floor named after him at the Gallagher-Iba arena, but yet even he finished 0-11 in Allen Fieldhouse during his time at Oklahoma State. That’s what Phog Allen Fieldhouse is all about, even legends retire without a win.
For all the other programs, Big 12 titles don’t just happen every single year. Oklahoma State, for example, was looking for their first back-to-back title since the 1950’s.
And there we were about ready to start a multi-decade streak.
We are an optimistic fan base, always have been, always will be, but it was really hard to try and argue that this team had a Final Four or National Championship ceiling.
We lost National Player of the Year Frank Mason, the first Player of the Year at Kansas since Danny Manning. We lost freshman superstar Josh Jackson to the NBA Draft, picked No. 3 overall. Glue guy Landen Lucas, also gone. Bragg transferred. Coleby transferred. Did we have any bigs outside of Udoka? Was Mitch Lightfoot ready to play significantly more minutes? I guess this Billy Preston guy is supposed to be pretty great.
(pause, goes to check Preston’s high school highlights).
Ok, ok! I’m believing again! Start Preston at the 4, Doke at the 5. Graham can play the role of Mason, Newman plays the role of Graham from last year, and Vick, if he can just give us like a 75 percent Josh Jackson level, I’m sold. Preston changes the whole outlook.
The Jayhawks could win it all…
A team of freshmen and sophomores. Russell Robinson. Sasha Kaun. Darnell Jackson. Jeremy Case. New guys on campus: Mario Chalmers. Brandon Rush. Julian Wright. All of those freshmen were 5-star recruits.
A team this young is bound to have a few early season stumbles. The ’05-06 season began with a rough trip to Maui where the Jayhawks went 1-2 with losses to Arizona and Arkansas. The Jayhawks started the season 3-4 and notched Bill Self’s second loss in Allen Fieldhouse, a loss to an unranked Nevada team who turned out to be really good. The Wolfpack made the NCAA tournament and had a First Team All-American candidate in Nick Fazekas.
That year’s Kansas team proved to be extremely coachable and played with a whole lot of heart. They went 10-0 in conference play from Jan. 21 to Feb. 21. They got their doors blown off at No. 7 Texas, 80-55, but won their next two games to split KU’s second straight Big 12 regular season title.
And, to make it even sweeter, these guys went down to Dallas and won three straight to take home the Big 12 Conference Tournament title, avenging that Texas loss with an impressive 80-68 win.
Rock Chalk Jayhawk, the Bill Self era was starting to find it’s momentum.
2017-18 Season, Champions Classic
The Champions Classic was loaded with star talent. Duke was bringing in star freshmen Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter. Michigan State had young stars Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson, and Cassius Winston. Kentucky reloading again with their regular group of five-star freshmen.
Kansas was the veteran club. None of these teams had two seniors like Graham and Svi. Plus Vick is a junior, and Newman’s 21-years-old. Four-fifths of the Jayhawk starting five can legally go to a bar after a victory; a rare feat in modern college basketball.
And yet, even with all that extra experience, we still struggled to win against a group of Kentucky Wildcats who were only six months removed from their high school graduations. Graham shot 3-of-14. Our bench only added three points. As a team, we shot just 35.3 percent!
And sure, the glass-half-full interpretation would say: it’s only November. It’s early. I mean this might be a good sign; we shot 35.3 percent and still beat a team ranked No. 7 in the country on a neutral court.
But we were the team that should at least be closer to our eventual ceiling. Kentucky, all their guys were 18 and 19. They will naturally get a lot better throughout the season. Same with Michigan State and Duke. Can our veteran guys make the same jump?
2006 – 07
It was right around Thanksgiving. The Jayhawks were on the road, about to play in the Toyota Las Vegas Invitational championship against the ultimate opponent: The No. 1 Florida Gators.
There may never be another team like the 2006-07 Florida Gators. They won the National Championship in 2006 and their core veteran guys (Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey) all came back for another season, decided against the NBA. Four juniors and a senior. All five with a ring already.
What better way to measure where we stand overall than going up against the defending champs.
Julian Wright scored 21, freshman Darrell Arthur had 19, Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush each had 13, Russell Robinson had 12.
The game went into overtime. Florida took an 80-77 lead with 1:22 left, but wouldn’t score again. The Jayhawks finished OT on a 5-0 run and completed what would be their biggest win of the year.
After the victory, Bill Self’s contract was renewed through 2011.
Kansas thrived in Big 12 play going 14-2, winning Self’s third straight conference title. This one was even sweeter since it was the first outright title of the Self-era. The Jayhawks also won the Big 12 Conference Tournament.
And there were only glimpses at the time, but this freshman point guard Sherron Collins from Chicago just seemed like he might have a chance at becoming a special player.
Oh, one more thing. We’ve got to talk about the Kevin Durant game.
The NBA’s age restriction forced the once in a generation talent Kevin Durant to play college basketball for a year. And if you ever wonder what a future Hall-of-Famer looks like in a complete state of flow, just go ahead and replay that KU vs. Texas first half in Allen Fieldhouse.
Durant came out on fire, scored 12 of Texas’ first 18 points. The Longhorns had a commanding 18-4 lead.
The points kept piling on. Every shot going in. And it wasn’t as if Kansas was playing bad defense. When a guy is seven-feet tall launching NBA threes, there’s really not much you can do.
Jason King described it best:
“I thought Kansas was guarding him really well and the shots that he was making, the defenders’ fingertips were inches away from blocking him. These were shots from 24, 25 feet that were pull up jumpers. He was just doing everything, especially in the first half. I never thought I would see the day that Kansas got run out its own gym, but this guy’s about to do it single-handedly.”
My brother had the privilege to be at the game. He’ll be telling his grandkids about that first half. How when Durant fell down with an ankle injury, 16,000 people went silent. It was as if Durant was one of our own guys. We were witnessing greatness in it’s purest form and to see him exit with an injury was devastating. Gave us a chance to go on a run and ultimately win the game, yes, but that didn’t matter. Jayhawks fans, we love our basketball, and Durant was playing the game as great as it could possibly be played.
Afterward, Bill Self praised both Durant and the home fans.
“The thing that was cool was after he goes back to get retaped after he tweaked his ankle, our fans gave him an ovation when he came back out,” Bill Self said. “Where else in college basketball would you see that?”
Self, always tough on his teams, especially about defense didn’t have any suggestions.
“We probably defended him above average and he got 25 in that first half,” Self said. “It was one of those days when he could’ve got 35 or 40 in a half. He may be arguably the best player to play in Allen Fieldhouse in generations. Even Danny’s on the bench saying, ‘That’s a bad man. That’s the baddest man to play here,’ and that’s Danny saying that who had many big games here.”
Danny Manning, Wilt Chamberlain, Jo Jo White, Allen Fieldhouse has definitely seen it’s fair share of greatness, but we may never see a first half to rival the Durant game.