Since Bill Self took over as head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks in 2003, he boasts an outstanding 416-88 (.825) record. 13 of those losses have been season-enders, each and every one of them hurts seemingly worse than the previous.
But for an abundance of reasons, KU’s 74-60 defeat to Oregon in the Elite Eight is the most painful loss of the 14-year Bill Self era.
This isn’t an easy conclusion to come to. Self is a legend. His Kansas teams have won 33 NCAA tournament games. But scattered throughout those 13 season-ending defeats in NCAA play are some true heartbreakers. Watching UCLA hit jump shot after jump shot as the shot clock expired was awful. Northern Iowa was brutal. VCU was an all-timer. Michigan was one of the worst gags in NCAA tournament history. Wichita State was flat-out annoying. Villanova was deflating. But all of those defeats pale in comparison to the Oregon game.
Saturday’s loss to the Oregon Ducks perfectly summarized a Bill Self Elite Eight loss. Let’s look at the checklist. Did a star Jayhawk player no-show? Check. Did KU score its fewest points of the year? You bet. Did the other team bank multiple three-pointers? You know they did. Did the Jayhawks have an inexplicably poor day shooting the three? Of course they did. It feels like we’ve all seen that game a hundred (or exactly 13) times, and none of these things are directly the fault of Self.
For a defeat to reach a new level of miserable, the first step is for most of the damage to be self-inflicted. As hot as Oregon was in the first half (60% from the floor and two ridiculous banked-in threes at the end), the Jayhawks cooled the Ducks off considerably after halftime. Jordan Bell dominated all game long, but the Jayhawks got stops more often than they didn’t down the stretch. Hell, from the 15-minute mark to the 4-minute mark, Oregon scored 11 points – eleven! And somehow, KU trimmed just nine points off the deficit in that crucial spurt.
I don’t think a game can be a special sort of painful if your opponent shoots the lights out or does something remarkable to pull an upset. Annoying, sure, but egregiously painful? The sort of thing that will stick with you for years? I don’t think “tip your hat” games can mix with “I’m 50 and still remember how awful that loss felt” games.
If your contenders for most painful loss of the Self era are Bucknell (2005), UCLA (2007), Northern Iowa (2010), VCU (2011), Michigan (2013), Wichita State (2015), Villanova (2016), and Oregon, you can immediately cross a few of these off your list based on that rule alone. UCLA shot 53%, and it felt like 73%. We all remember all of the Northern Iowa shooters that hadn’t taken threes all year and chose the KU game to start burying treys. Michigan’s comeback was historic. Wichita State couldn’t miss in the second half.
That leaves us four contenders for the most painful loss in the Self era: Bucknell, VCU, Villanova, and Oregon.
Next, you have to look at what round of the NCAA tournament the loss actually occurred in. Three of these four games occurred in the Elite Eight, one step away from the Final Four. The outlier is Bucknell, which while being a brutal way to watch Wayne Simien’s career come to a close, happened in the very first round. It was painful, but just imagine had it occurred closer to the end of the road.
With three games left, the next factor is to eliminate coin-flip contests. Losing a game game where the win probability is basically 50/50 at the final TV timeout stings for awhile, but eventually, you’ll look back on those as great games that you can’t win all of. Villanova comes to mind here. Both teams played well for stretches. Ultimately, Villanova made one more play than Kansas did. It hurt like a mother, but it wasn’t one of those “special kind of painful” losses. Not going away, at least.
That leaves two games: VCU in 2011 and Oregon in 2017. In my opinion, these are easily the two worst losses in the Self era. Both came in the Elite Eight, which is the worst round of the tournament to lose in. Both were games where KU was decently favored. Both occurred in years when KU was considered to be the tournament favorite, which only salivated the fan base more as the team sprinted through the first three rounds of both 2011 and 2017.
VCU certainly scores a major point when it comes to opponent quality factoring into this puzzle. Oregon is damn good. The Ducks proved their worth by winning a loaded Midwest Regional. VCU was an 11-seed and got beat pretty badly by Butler the next weekend. Beating No. 1 Kansas was arguably the most stunning upset in the history of the NCAA tournament.
However, there’s a couple of more elements that I think swings the needle back over to Oregon. First off, 2017’s regional final occurred at the Sprint Center, which is barely 30 miles from KU’s campus. The Jayhawks knew for nearly two full years that the 2017 regional would be in Kansas City, and the goal was always in mind. All season, KU knew that all it needed to do was get in the Midwest bracket, and it’d get a major boost come second weekend. On Saturday night, the crowd was 90%+ Jayhawk fans. They weren’t competitive in the second half. It was brutal.
Lastly, Saturday’s game ended the career of one of the greatest Jayhawk players of all-time. Statistically, Frank Mason is probably the best point guard in Kansas history. 2011’s team featured the Morris twins and a trio of seniors, all of whom were valuable and keyed a really good Jayhawk team. But none of those guys were Frank Mason. None of those guys were the National Player of the Year. That matters, particularly when Mason was the only one doing anything for a full half before running out of gas.
Saturday night was the most miserable game I’ve witnessed as a Jayhawk fan. Every time the Jayhawks fed the post, Jordan Bell swatted it back out. Every time they shot a three, it clanked off the rim two or three times before falling off. There were no solutions. There were no glimmers of hope. That’s another advantage this game has over VCU: in 2011, the Jayhawks cut a big deficit all the way down to two points. That game, for at least a little while, was exciting. This one was really never close throughout the last 25 minutes. How many Kansas games can you say that about?
Bill Self has spoiled Jayhawk fans to no end. He’s a top-five college basketball coach, one that I’m not sure I’d trade for anybody else in the sport. Everybody knows about the 13 straight conference titles, but the guy has won 43 NCAA tournament games. If you go by wins projected by seed (4 wins for a 1-seed, 3 wins for a 2-seed, etc.), he’s been essentially a completely average tournament coach.
When you’re under the opinion that NCAA tournament runs are more dumb luck than anything, which is the camp I’m in, you don’t put too much stock into Self’s 2-7 Elite Eight record. Judging a coach with an 82% winning percentage over the last 14 years by a nine-game sample size is incredibly dumb. Self certainly has had some brutal collapses in a particularly painful round, but considering how random the NCAA tournament can be, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him win his next three Elite Eight games. It happens. It’ll swing back around at some point; Self has top-two seeds too consistently for the law of averages not to swing things back at some point.
But if you’re looking at the facts, as brutal as it is to admit, Kansas’ loss to Oregon in the 2017 Elite Eight was the most painful, miserable, brutal loss in the Bill Self era. This was the last night that at least four Jayhawks will ever wear the KU uniform. They were one step away from a Final Four. The arena was in KU’s backyard. 5-for-25 on threes. Going inside didn’t work. Banked in threes. It was a medley of pain.
KU will almost certainly be really good again next year, as it always is under Bill Self. But for now, the only thing Jayhawk fans can do is sit back and say “mother ducker.”