Heat Check Herald: Sixteen notes from Kansas’ historic 16-point national championship comeback

No sport crowns its champion in an odder way than college basketball. Six games of single elimination basketball is the best way to create the beautiful deluge of March moments we so desperately crave, but can often leave us feeling like the best team didn’t win the national championship when the nets get cut in April.

As the college basketball world revolved around Duke and the farewell tour of Mike Krzyzewski, maybe Kansas got lost in the shuffle a bit. The Jayhawks opened the year as the 3rd-ranked team in the nation, thrashing Michigan State at Madison Square Garden in a season-opening statement before falling into the background of the national conversation. At no point in this season were the Jayhawks ranked higher than No. 3 in the nation.

On Jan. 22, Kansas went to Kansas State and battled, whittling away the Wildcats 17-point lead in a methodical slow leak to win by 3. Kansas’ erasure of North Carolina’s 15-point halftime lead was anything but methodical.

“That was a gutted out win,” Self told reporters while recalling the win in Manhattan, “and this is no disrespect to K-State at all, but we weren’t playing in front of 70,000 people on national TV playing Carolina. This was a different deal tonight.”

When super senior guard Remy Martin knocked down a corner 3 with 10:23 to play in the second half, the Jayhawks had taken the lead, evaporating the UNC lead in oh-so-quick fashion. The back-and-forth down the stretch wound up in a 72–69 victory, another miraculous win for Kansas in a title game.

At the risk of sounding juvenile, lots of things happened Monday night in New Orleans. So, let’s list 16 of them that stood out in honor of Kansas’ 16-point comeback.

  1. David McCormack comes in clutch

The (likely) last minute of David McCormack’s Kansas career was another example of the 6-foot-10 center meeting the moment. Before North Carolina center Armando Bacot exited after re-tweaking his ankle, McCormack grabbed the night’s biggest offensive rebound and second chance points of the game.

Kansas’ last three shot attempts of the night all came from McCormack. The one he missed was quickly retrieved and scored to put Kansas up 70–69. Moments later, a post-up score over Brady Manek gave the Jayhawks a 72–69 lead and put the finishing touches on a 15-point, 10-rebound performance from McCormack.

An argument can be made that McCormack should’ve been the NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player. In Kansas’ biggest games down the stretch this season, McCormack was outstanding.

  • Senior Day vs. Texas: 22 points (6–13 FG, 10–10 FT), 10 rebounds
  • Big 12 Championship Game vs. Texas Tech: 18 points (5–10 FG, 8–9 FT), 11 rebounds
  • Elite Eight vs. Miami: 15 points (6–7 FG, 3–4 FT), 4 rebounds
  • Final Four vs. Villanova: 25 points (10–12 FG, 5–6 FT), 9 rebounds
  • National Final vs. North Carolina: 15 points (7–15 FG, 1–2 FT), 10 rebounds

“If I really had a Most Outstanding Player throughout the whole entire Final Four, it would be David,” said KU senior guard Ochai Agbaji, who took home the award instead.

Against Villanova (+25) and North Carolina (+16), McCormack was a team-best +41 in plus/minus.

2. Ochai Agbaji enters Danny Manning territory

The award list of Ochai Agbaji this season is comically long. Go look up the full list for yourself but among the highlights are Big 12 Player of the Year, Big 12 Tournament MVP, First Team All-American, NCAA Tournament MOP.

Since Bill Self arrived in Lawrence, the Jayhawks have had four players take home Big 12 Player of the Year awards while being a consensus All-American. That list includes Marcus Morris, Thomas Robinson, Frank Mason (who won National Player of the Year honors) and Devonte Graham. But none of them capped off their season with a national championship and MOP award.

“He’s the most accomplished player that we’ve had at our University since Danny (Manning),” Self said of Agbaji’s season. “We may have had some guys who had comparable years, but never had anybody cap it off like he has other than Danny.”

While Agbaji didn’t lead Kansas in scoring Monday night — he wound up with 12 points and was one of five KU players in double figures — he did play a crucial role in slowing down UNC guard Caleb Love, serving as the primary defender while the sophomore went 5-for-24 shooting in the Tar Heels’ loss.

3. That’s why Remy Martin came to Kansas

In hindsight, two Kansas losses in previous years don’t wind up being all that bad. You can read more about Remy Martin’s decision to transfer from Arizona State in my story for Cronkite News, but Martin’s play Monday night solidified the value of him as a marquee offseason addition.

There were three versions of Remy Martin this year.

“He’s an amazing guy because I don’t know if there’s many out there that can flip a switch like he can. Guys, he didn’t contribute much. He averaged three points per game in league,” Self said. “Of course, he was hurt. But he told me all along, ‘Just wait for March.’

“I’m like, ‘Well, crap. You expect me to trust you in March when you haven’t shown us all year long?’ He said, ‘I’m not healthy. When I get healthy, just wait.’”

Once healthy, Martin was a difference-maker in the Big 12 Championship against Texas Tech and crucial to victories over Creighton and Providence in the Round of 32 and Sweet 16. Against Miami (9) and Villanova (3), Martin went back to scoring less than double figures, but an 11-point second half and 14-point title game showed his value again Monday night.

Every shot Martin made was taken with the game either tied or within one-possession.

With Martin hitting big shots, Bill Raftery’s, “There’s nothing like a little Remy late in the evening,” was the call of the night.

4. Layups, layups, layups

Kansas struggled late in the first half to do fundamental things well. The Jayhawks entered Monday night shooting 64 percent as a team on layups for the season. At one point, KU went over five minutes without making a shot and what was a tie game at 22–22 became a 38–22 UNC advantage.

But rather than bomb 3-pointers in hopes of erasing their Mt. Everest-like deficit, Kansas continued to drive to the basket throughout the second half. Seeking contact on drives led to foul trouble for a UNC team lacking any depth, further opening things for the Jayhawks to score inside with less resistance.

Five of the first six baskets of the second half for Kansas came on dunks or layups — the only score not of that variety coming from junior guard Christian Braun on a driving floater from a foot outside the paint. Kansas made layup after layup until Martin hit the 3-pointer to give the Jayhawks the lead at 53–50. The success at the rim helped Kansas shoot 57.6 percent in the second half and score 47 points in the final 20 minutes.

5. Confident Bill Self

With Kansas trailing by three points but the comeback in full swing, Bill Self appeared to have great confidence in the Jayhawks.

But even moments earlier with the Jayhawks trailing by more than a possession, Self winked in the direction of someone.

Postgame, Self told reporters that he asked his team at halftime the question of what’s harder: being down 9 with 2:00 to play or being down 15 with 20 minutes to play?

“They obviously took 15,” Self told Jim Nantz on the championship podium.

6. Upbeat McCormack

Trailing by 15 at the half, McCormack was still smiling, confusing Braun.

I guess the confidence was warranted.

7. Locking down

This Kansas team ranked 50th in adjusted defensive efficiency at one point during the heart of Big 12 play. By season’s end, Kansas finished as the 17th-best team in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric.

Key to winning games for KU was holding its opponent below 74 points. When that happened, the Jayhawks went 28–0 this season. In games it didn’t, they went 6–6. Kansas ended the season holding opponents to fewer than 74 points in 11 straight games.

After allowing North Carolina to score 40 points in the first half — largely because of 16 free throws attempted — on 34 percent shooting percentage, Kansas completely locked down the Tar Heels in the second half. During the final 20 minutes, UNC shot 11-for-40 from the field and was 2-for-12 from 3-point range.

8. Dajuan Harris defensive swagger

Dajuan Harris put defensive clamps on RJ Davis and Caleb Love throughout different points of the game. His constant hounding pressure on Davis and good help defense at the right times on Love allowed Kansas to get out and run during the second half. After Martin hit the go-ahead 3-pointer to give Kansas the 53–50 lead, UNC tried to get the ball quickly up the court.

Harris, the pest he is, came streaking from behind to steal the ball from Love and ignite a fastbreak, dishing the ball to Jalen Wilson for the hoop and harm. Then, Harris turned to the crowd with a confident strut.

9. Fiery Christian Braun continues to shine

Kansas guard Christian Braun secured a double-double Monday night with 12 points and 12 rebounds. In the process of doing so, he ignited the Jayhawks out of the halftime break, scoring or assisting on eight of the first 10 points of the second half. Then, he let everyone know about it.

10. 2020 Redemption

When COVID forced the NCAA to cancel the tournament in 2020, Kansas lost an opportunity for another title chance with a team destined to be the No. 1 overall seed. With Udoka Azubuike and Marcus Garrett the Jayhawks had the best interior defender and best wing defender in the country to go along with then sophomore guard Devon Dotson, who was a Second Team All-American.

A case can be made that the 2019–20 Jayhawks — a team that had Agbaji, McCormack and Braun in the rotation and Mitch Lightfoot, Dajuan Harris and Jalen Wilson redshirting — were Self’s second-best team in his time at Kansas. It wasn’t a lock that KU would’ve won the title, but in a down year for the sport they had separated from the rest.

After winning Monday night, Self approached the Kansas crowd and gave Dotson his championship hat.

11. Kansas completes New Orleans parallel

Sports are weird sometimes and this is one of those times.

12. Big 12 dominance

Kansas’ national championship win gives the Big 12 back-to-back national championships. In 2020, Kansas (1), Baylor (3) and West Virginia (10) all occupied top 10 spots in the KenPom rankings, giving the conference a great shot to have added another Final Four team to a growing list recently.

The Big 12 has a Final Four team in five of the last six tournaments, has put a team in the championship game three tournaments in a row and had two of the best three teams in the country in 2020 before the season was cancelled. And they’re doing this all with only 10 teams.

Soon, Houston, BYU, UCF and Cincinnati join the league as Texas and Oklahoma leave. There’s a decent chance that makes the Big 12 a better basketball league.

13. The Kansas City Jayhawks

Mark Emmert is really bad at his job, huh?

14. An absurd rebounding performance

North Carolina out-rebounded Kansas by 20(!) and still lost. That’s an absurd disparity on the glass and almost doomed Kansas as UNC grabbed 24 offensive rebounds and created 28 second chance points.

15. Give Armando Bacot his flowers

The disparity on the glass was in large part because Armando Bacot — playing on a bad ankle — grabbed 15 rebounds. By halftime, he’d already tallied a double-double.

16. What Bill Self’s second title means

Now that Mike Krzyzewski has retired, the mantle for best coach in college basketball is one for the taking. Of course, the debate with the Duke legend can be had as to whether he still remained the best X’s and O’s coach during the latter years of his career. Still, no one is as primed to grab hold of that title than Bill Self.

At a school in which five of the eight coaches ever are in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame (named after the only losing coach in KU history), Self is the only one to have won two NCAA titles.

Heading into the weekend there was conversation about Jay Wright being better as the Villanova head coach held two titles to Self’s one. But after beating Wright and then securing the title Monday, here are the two coaches’ resumés:

  • Bill Self: 763–229 (.769 W-L%), 20-time regular season conference champion, 10-time conference tournament champion, 4 Final Fours, 2 National Titles
  • Jay Wright: 642–282 (.695 W-L%), 10-time regular season conference champion, 7-time conference tournament champion, 4 Final Fours, 2 National Titles

Self is better than Wright. Here is the list of seeds earned in the NCAA Tournament for Self during his time at Kansas: 4, 3, 4, 1, 1, 3, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 2, 1, 1, 1, 4, 1*, 3, 1

Give yourself that many shots as a 1 seed and eventually the national title piñata is going to break. It did Monday night.

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Gabe Swartz

Sports Journalism at Arizona State University | Cronkite 2022 | Staff Writer DevilsDigest.com | President WCSN | Former Editor-in-Chief of BVNWnews