NEW ORLEANS — Two years later, Bill Self still wonders how his Kansas team might have finished a season that ended without an NCAA tournament due to COVID-19.
Those 2019-20 Jayhawks finished 28-3 and won their last 16 games of the regular season before the NCAA tournament was canceled for the first time in the history of the sport. Self remembered that team following Saturday night’s 81-65 win over Villanova on Saturday night in the Final Four at the Superdome and said the Jayhawks will be playing in the national title game for them, too.
“I think it does have added value to me and the players because there’s no guarantees in this tournament,” Self said Saturday. “A lot of times, the favorites don’t win, obviously. But in [2019-20], we had a team that was equipped to make a run. We were so good defensively. And we had enough scoring. I thought that was probably as prepared a team to do well in the tournament as any we’ve had.”
Both Ochai Agbaji and David McCormack played on the 2019-20 squad that would have entered the 2020 NCAA tournament as a top seed with a chance to secure Self’s second national championship.
On Saturday, Agbaji and McCormack had either outscored or matched Villanova’s 11 points by the 9:28 mark of the first half, with Agbaji scoring 12 of his 21 points to that point and McCormack scoring 11 of his 25.
Villanova played without guard Justin Moore, who suffered a torn Achilles in the team’s Elite Eight win over Houston, and from the start of the game his absence from a rotation that relies on just six players was clear. Kansas scored the first 10 points of the game, and the Jayhawks also made seven of their first 13 3-point attempts, finishing 13-of-24 (54 percent) for the game.
McCormack’s size and strength gave Villanova problems in the paint, and Agbaji and his teammates quickly got hot from the perimeter. Kansas had leads of 10-0, 16-5, 26-11 and 38-19 before a 10-0 Villanova run cut the lead to 10 just before halftime.
“Just talking with [Self]he wanted us to have an inside presence, and usually, if you can play inside-out, it opens up more shots, more driving lanes, a lot of cuts,” McCormack said after the game. “And I think starting off early on, it opened the rest of the floor up and we played off of that and made it easy.”
Villanova could never do enough to close the gap, even as it grappled with a single-digit deficit for a chunk of the second half.
There was a sequence after halftime that highlighted Villanova’s challenge on Saturday.
Early in the second half, Abgaji burst to the corner to launch a 3-pointer but he was soon doubled, so he threw a pass to Christian Braun on the block. Braun then tossed a lob to McCormack, who was wide open for the layup. Even Villanova’s good defense on KU’s best player was insufficient to slow the bus down. That could be a problem for whomever Kansas faces on Monday night, too.
Despite a gutsy effort by Villanova to cut KU’s lead to six points late in the second half, it never seemed as if the Jayhawks faced any real danger.
“[It’s the confidence] in everybody,” said Braun, who scored 10 points and hit a pair of crucial 3-pointers late in the game. “All year, we’ve been in a lot of these situations in the Big 12. We played a lot of games that were really close down the stretch.
“Everybody’s pretty confident in each other. And guys like [McCormack] and [Agbaji] had it going today, so we always had an answer. When they came back a little bit, we could throw it inside and we knew [McCormack] would get us an easy bucket. And [Agbaji] made big plays. And everybody was pretty locked in on the job. And we’re all pretty bought in. And we know what we want to accomplish, so we’re all going to buy in and do that.”
Entering the Final Four, the Duke-North Carolina matchup in Mike Krzyzewski’s final season generated the most buzz. And Villanova earned compassion after Moore’s injury impacted Jay Wright’s pursuit of his third national title in six years.
But Kansas entered the Final Four with arguably the most balanced and efficient team in the field.
The Jayhawks had a 47-19 halftime edge over Texas Southern in the first round. They scored 113 points per 100 possessions against Creighton, the top defensive team in the Big East, in the second round. A 24-12 lead against Providence gave KU control of that game in the Sweet 16 and a late rally helped secure the win. Against Miami in the Elite Eight, the Jayhawks outscored Jim Larranaga’s squad 47-15 in the second half of a lopsided victory.
And now Self will get another opportunity to earn his second national title.
The last time Self’s team played in New Orleans, however, Kansas lost to John Calipari and Kentucky in the national championship game in 2012 at the Superdome. Six years later, his team suffered a lopsided loss to Villanova in the Final Four. In both cases, however, Kansas was the underdog. We’ll never know what the 2019-2020 squad might have done.
But this stacked group, anchored by players who never got the chance to play in the NCAA tournament in 2020, seems to understand the stakes.
“In the Elite Eight, we were saying, ‘We come to Kansas for big games, but you don’t come to Kansas to play the Elite Eight,'” Braun said. “Then we win the Final Four game, and we’re saying, ‘We don’t come to Kansas to win the Final Four, we came to win the national championship.’ Everybody has that mindset. That’s why everybody is saying ‘one more’ and that’s before [we walk out of the tunnel]. On the court, that’s what everybody is saying. ‘One more.’ So everybody has the same mindset.”